Today in London riotous history: police attack anti-poll tax demo, Brixton Prison, 1990

Saturday 20 October 1990 saw the second national UK demonstration against the hated poll tax, which ended in a police riot outside Brixton Prison.

“Well in March of 1990
We had some fun, all do agree;
The West End burned and the cops did flee,
As we paid them back their poll tax.
6 months later they had a rematch.
I don’t have to tell you, we didn’t win that.”
(Paddy Goes on the Demo, Dr Feelshite – sung to the tune of Paddy Works on the Railway)

In 1989 (Scotland) and 1990 (England & Wales,) the Conservative Government introduced a new tax to replace local rates as a way of funding local councils. The Tories called it the Community Charge. Everyone else called it the Poll Tax, after the famous levy that triggered the 1381 Peasants Revolt. The poll tax was radically different from the rates in that it was a flat rate, so everyone in a Borough would pay the same regardless of how rich they were or how much their property was worth, rather than paying more if they owned more. Obviously this re-drew the burden of paying for the Council – reducing costs for the wealthy and much of the middle class, and increasing the cost for the working class and

Thatcher and co thought they would get away with this after a decade in which they’d largely mashed up organised working class opposition – steelworkers, miners, printers, etc had been defeated and trade unions cowed. The tories thought they were on a roll, and that the Poll Tax would not only make them more and more friends among the middle class and consolidate the wealth of their traditional supporters, but also stick the knife into the Labour Councils they hated so much, forcing them to slash services or impose crippling poll tax… The government clearly felt they would push the tax through whatever the opposition…

However, they had miscalculated somewhat.

Huge campaigns sprang up against registering to pay, filling in forms, giving the local council any info etc., and then against payment. Thousands of local anti-poll tax groups or unions were set up. Opposition ranged from marches, occupations, defending people’s homes against bailiffs, blockading and occupying council chambers, bailiffs offices, to riots and clogging up the courts with legal challenges, spurious and otherwise. Hundreds of people were jailed for refusing or not being able to pay, and for taking part in protests against the Tax.

However, there were divisions in the campaign; fundamental differences over strategy and ways of organising. Broadly speaking
• Labour activist campaigners thought you could fight through the Council and the TUC,
• the Socialist Workers Party was for stopping the Poll tax through workplace resistance (ie by council workers, organised in then public service workers union NALGO, which became part of today’s Unison) organisation, and that community or street anti-poll tax groups were pointless;
• the slightly more working class oriented Militant Tendency {now the Socialist Party} was for building community groups but under their direct control and run top down by their activists;
• the anarchists and other non-aligned types weren’t against trying to get NALGO members to strike against implementing the Tax (although sceptical of the likelihood of NALGO taking a strong position – from experience!), but felt the best strategy was self-organised local groups run from the bottom by the local people themselves.

As it happened the SWP flitted in and out of the anti-poll tax movement with all the attention span of a slightly dizzy gnat, depending on what other exciting things were going on (“Non-registration is a damp squib, comrades, the Dockers Strike is the Big issue Now.”) Militant and the anarchists fought constantly as the Milis tried to impose as much control over the campaign as they could.

The fighting between police and protestors at local anti-poll tax demonstrations around the UK, and the huge Trafalgar Square March 31st Poll Tax Riot had increased tensions within the anti-poll tax movement – mostly hostility between Militant cadre and independent activists and groups, especially after Militant bigwigs threatened to grass up Trafalgar Square rioters, on top of the manipulations, threats and lies they were using to try and control the resistance… But the battering the cops had taken at Trafalgar Square led to a massive repression, 100s of arrests, raids on activists’ houses (which added 70 odd more defendants to the original 381 nicked on the 31st itself, this blogespondent being just one of them); and a determination by police to get one back on us…

The cops had lost it in a big way on March 31st, and tactically fucked up, allowing rioting to spread through the West End, instead of containing us in one area, which had transformed the protest against the Poll Tax to a short lovely insurrection against the consumer culture of central London. (The Strangeways Prison revolt next day and the other jail rebellions/protests that followed were like icing on the cake).

But the cops have long memories, and hate to be beaten. And the Government was willing to back them to the hilt in taking back the initiative. They must have seen potential in the divisions between the Militant-sponsored Anti-Poll Tax Federation and the anti-poll tax groups these trot hacks couldn’t control. Militant apparatchiks had condemned both local and Trafalgar Square rioting, and (whatever they afterwards claimed) did threaten to grass up those who had taken part in fighting with the police (in Bristol and Nottingham Militant members DID rat out rioters.) The next big anti-poll tax demo was to be October 20th: group of anti-poll tax campaigners had marched all the way from Scotland in time to arrive for that date; the London Anti-Poll tax Federation organised a demo to greet them. The route was set to be from Kennington Park (where the March 31st had begun, and a symbolic gathering point for protest for over 150 years) to Brockwell Park in Brixton, to be followed with a march to Brixton Prison, in support of several prisoners from Trafalgar Square who were locked up there. The Militant-dominated All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation had refused to organise the main march, so the equally Militant-run London Federation of anti-poll tax groups had taken it on; the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign, around which many dissident elements had grouped, had planned the prison demo, which the London Federation leadership had initially refused to support but had reluctantly backed after parts of their own affiliated membership protested. The Police bigwigs must have seen an opportunity to get their own back (and maybe drive a further wedge into the movement?)

I’ve mix-maxed a few accounts into a roughly coherent chronology here, some of it is from my own recollections and others lifted from a couple of other accounts. Apologies if it reads a bit disjointed.

October 20th: A feeder march of 2,000 organised by the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign (TSDC) picketed Horseferry Road Magistrates Court at 9.30 that morning. This court had heard many of the cases of those arrested on March 31. Magistrates there were jailing as many people as they could but publicity and pickets of the court had caused them to be more restrained. The TSDC organised and stewarded the march themselves. It met up with the main London Federation march at Kennington Park. The main march had people from all over England, it was a beautiful day and the occasion was lively with a few bands, kids, dogs, Class War and the usual lefty paper sellers. Unfortunately the route was mostly down quiet roads so it wasn’t very visible but residents waved, shouted slogans and hung out banners. The march reached Brockwell Park without incident, this of course did not interest the media who were looking only for trouble. A large rally in the park heard speakers from the Scottish walkers, a Trafalgar Square defendant and Tony Benn.

At 3.30 in the afternoon, following the Brockwell Park rally,  a TSDC demo of over 3,000 people marched to Brixton Prison where four Trafalgar Square prisoners were being held. As before it was well organised and stewarded by the TSDC.

“The police had earmarked the people participating in the prison picket as the trouble-makers. Whereas they had lightly policed the rest of the day, the march to Brixton was saturated with police officers – 3,000 of them (almost more police than demonstrators). To put this in context: on March 31st when 200,000 people took to the streets, there were only 2,000 police.

The route was lined by three layers of police on either side. The songs of the demonstrators were optimistic and upbeat, but there was a strong air of anticipation. There were rumours flying around that the police wanted a rematch for March 31st. The police officer responsible for overseeing the march (Deputy Assistant Commissioner Metcalfe) had told the march organisers the night before the demonstration that he too had heard ‘rumblings’ to this effect.” (Danny Burns)

“After the initial march to Brockwell Park, people’s spirits started to rise, and the atmosphere walking to Brixton Prison became more intense, and seemed to have more purpose. Everyone was shouting Anti Poll Tax chants and the cops were telling people to shut up. As we approached the jail the march came to a halt’ and a few of us sat down in the road.” ( a report from a Sussex Poll Tax Resister)

The march arrived at the prison only to find that the police wanted to hem everyone in behind crowd barriers. As the march stopped on Brixton Hill the crowd became very compacted behind the barriers. TSDC organisers asked the police to allow the march round the back of the prison, the officer in charge of the police seemed to make sure he was not around at this point. The police were asked to move the barriers further up the road so the crowd could move up and ease congestion, this was also refused. The police took the megaphone from the TSDC organisers who were very visible in their bright pink bibs. They did not, as they claim, give out megaphones – this is yet another POLICE LIE.

“I was sat up on one of the pillars in the fence round the little park between Elm Park & Endymion Roads. Having been nicked at Trafalgar Square and several other times recently I fancied staying out of it (Bottler! I hear you shout!). All the marchers were funnelled into this tiny space and you could see the filth tooling up and licking their lips. “Aye aye,” I thought, ” here we go again.” It felt a lot like the moment just before it kicked off in Whitehall on March 31st – but this time there a lot less of us and A LOT more cops. Shit loads of ’em everywhere.” ( T.Barker)

“As early as 4.10 p.m. one of the legal liaison volunteers heard PC MS112 shouting (so that the demonstrators could hear): “I’d like to start kicking some people’s heads in now.” Not only were the demonstrators hemmed in, but the march stewards were prevented from crossing police lines. This made communication extremely difficult, especially as the van with the demonstration PA and megaphones hadn’t been allowed by the police to join the march. As the march reached the prison it was still in good spirits, the chants were about the Poll Tax and not the police. The march stopped on the opposite side of the road to the prison and gradually the police built up the numbers of their cordons on each side of the picket. Police Support Units (riot formations) were also deployed in an open show of strength.” (D. Burns)

“After a while we moved further up Brixton Hill where we could see a large crowd of people trying to get nearer the prison. There were hundreds of police stopping anyone getting to near. We could see everyone pushing between a wall of police. We tried to get on a wall to see if we could see the prison but the police started shoving everyone off. We could see loads of cop vans parked up the side street and as things started heating up in the centre of the crowd we could see them getting helmets and riot shields ready. Then a large group of them started to run towards us but stopped and turned back as if making a practice run.” (Sussex)

“At 4.40, for no apparent reason the police officers cordoned off Elm Park, splitting a number of demonstrators away from the main march. This was carried out just twenty minutes after the head of the march reached the prison, a clear indication that the police had decided to disperse the picket despite the fact that there was no public order problem. Two minutes later, the police attacked the crowd.” (Burns):

“The PSUs deployed in front of the churchyard push forward into the crowd, attacking demonstrators with violent and indiscriminate use of baton. There is much shouting and confusion, and a total of four cans are thrown at the surging pace. After 20-30 seconds, the police resume their positions in front of the churchyard and the crowd becomes calm again.” (Preliminary report on the policing of the Anti-Poll Tax Demonstration of October 20th, Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign.)

The angry and frustrated crowd threw one or two beer cans but the police needed no excuse to charge into the crowd. Those who didn’t move fast enough were truncheoned and arrested. A young mother asked a police woman to take her children over the crowd barrier to safety, the caring cop refused.

“At 4.46, the police cleared the forecourt of the George IV pub not allowing people to finish their drinks. The police were then seen to pick up the glasses and smash them on the floor. One was overheard saying ‘This is it!’ At about the same time I was passing through a line of police and heard a similar statement: “just wait until it gets dark, then the real fun will start.”

By 4.50, the police in Endymion Rd. had been seen putting on their riot gear. At 4.55, a police officer was heard to say ‘Clear area – shield officers will be deployed’. A group of TSDC stewards intervened in an attempt to block any attack, but a few minutes later 50 police officers charged into the crowd. (Burns)

“I saw Dave Morris, one of the main organisers of the demonstration, who I knew from TSDC, go down, truncheoned over the head, from behind. He had been arguing with some top cop minutes or even seconds before. Some beercans went over onto cops’ heads and WHAM, they waded in.” (T. Barker)

“Looking into the main crowd of people across from the prison, things looked to be getting hectic and a lot of people began to run down Brixton Hill away from an obvious police attack. Seeing the crowd splitting up we ran towards the main bulk of the demo. After that I became separated from the people I was with, and made my way back to the corner of the side street. to be greeted by masses of riot police charging down the side street. There was nowhere to get away and me and many others were shoved by cops with riot shields, other people were getting a lot rougher treatment.

I managed to get past the police and go to the parked vans where I met the people I was with earlier. This is when I found out one of us had been nicked and dragged into a van by four police. We tried to talk to the person and offer some money for them to get home, but the cops wouldn’t have it surprise, surprise. One of them told us which station they were being taken to.

After that, alot of the vans drove off.

There were still people hanging about but had nowhere else to go, the main bulk had been forced down Brixton Hill.” (Sussex)

“The old bill pushed everyone down the hill from Elm Park. I got pulled off the fence (haha) by a rather agitated riot cop, and legged it with the rest. I could sense we weren’t gonna win this one.” (T Barker)

“The crowd was pushed down Brixton Hill and scores of riot police, who had been waiting down side streets preparing to take revenge for March 31 came out and further charged the crowd.

For the next half an hour police in riot formations charged the crowd forcing it down Brixton Hill. In the side streets many demonstrators (including myself) were caught between lines of riot police. We were ordered one way, and then ordered back as we reached the next line of police. Gradually, the crowd was forced down towards the tube station at the bottom of the hill. Hundreds of people were milling around watching what was happening.” (Burns)

Individuals trying to leave the crowd and avoid trouble were pushed back in. The crowd was driven back into Brixton to the dismay of those trying to do a peaceful day’s shopping. People legging it with peelers on their heels tried to get into pubs only to find the doors barred against them.

“We walked down to Electric Avenue. The market stalls were still lying around. People dragged them into the middle of the road, throwing cardboard boxes and other rubbish on top. Then they were lit, more were dragged up, a burning barricade began to be formed. Then the riot police again. It was unclear where to go. The police were too close for us to run. They charged. I grabbed Susan and threw her up against the wall, covering our heads with my arm. The riot police ran past us, truncheoning down anyone in their path.” (Burns).

Buses were stopped, the tube station was closed, so those wishing to leave were unable to. Groups were pushed into the market, the High Road and Coldharbour Lane. Market skips and a police motorbike were set on fire. People were pushed down to Camberwell and up towards Oval, many brutal arrests were made (135 in all, 120 charged, 27 of them with Violent Disorder, Section 2 of the Public Order Act – max sentence 5 years), demonstrators continued to fight back against the police till about 7 p.m.

“Many of those nicked were lined up in Jebb Avenue, the entrance to the Prison. Defendants I worked with later told me they were made to sit with their legs outstretched, while cops walked along, stepping on their legs and taunting them… It was clear the filth had been more than a little riled at taking such a heavy beating at Trafalgar Square and saw this very much as a rematch on their terms. I did find it noticeable that the police attack, while it did get resisted by those on the demo, did not spread to a social rebellion, attracting local youth and troublemakers, as much as earlier riots or even the other local anti-poll tax riots in Brixton that March. The cops won this one, decisively.

The only bright spot was the quality work done by the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign. Set up in the wake of March 31st to support all accused, both practically and politically, the TSDC had been the organisers of the Brixton Prison demo. As a defendant from Trafalgar Square involved in TSDC, I was involved I and saw at first hand the planning that was done in advance to prepare for a likely police attack, which didn’t stave it off but ensured that legal monitoring of cop activity, arrests and violence was carried out. 20,000 bust cards had been given out on the demo, video crews recorded police actions, 60 legal volunteers on the day took notes and got the names of arrestees and witnesses; plus office backup, meant that legal help and solicitors were arranged for as many of those nicked in Brixton as we could; friends and comrades rang in to report nickings and keep us posted about those released, and who was being remanded to prison. Visitors went to all police stations were those nicked were being held, welcoming people out when they were released. Many of us stayed up all that night, and all the next day, taking phone calls, arranging legal help, working out the train of events, making a list of who defendants were, what they were charged with, etc. Which meant by the next day we were in touch with nearly all those nicked and gave them support through court cases, prison etc. 60 defendants came to a meeting later in the week; the collation of witness statements

helped some defendants get off heavy charges, as well as being able to hold a press conference refuting the police official propaganda as to the chain of events.” (T.Barker)

Solicitors were provided for all those arrested and witness statements made. A picket was held at Southwark police station to support those arrested.

Within twelve hours the campaign had a complete record of what had happened throughout the day. When they organised a press conference the next day:

“The press thought that we would be a rabble, but they were stunned, they were surprised that we had the numbers of policemen who had said certain things; we had a complete chronology of events; and we were able to prove conclusively that the police had pre-planned attack.” (Dave Morris).

On Monday pickets were held at courts and courts for those still held in custody.

“It’s fair to say in retrospect that while the cops had, in meetings with the London Fed/TSDC beforehand, assured the demo organisers they wanted a peaceful day, they had block-booked Horseferry Road courts for Monday, cancelled all leave, heavily over-policed the march and allowed cops their heads in beating the shit out of us. They wanted to re-assert control after losing it 6 months before. To some extent we walked into a trap with our eyes open. While we none of us trusted the police, at least legal back-up was in place to aid as many arrestees as possible.” (T. Barker)

Several people did go to prison for long terms for the events of October 20th – due to confusion in the past tense archives I can’t list them here, but will add that if I locate it later.

One footnote for young folk – the march took place on the same day as that year’s London Anarchist Bookfair (which had been organised and booked long before the demo was announced), which then was held in Conway Hall. A good chunk of the UK anarchist scene was heavily involved in the anti-poll tax movement and most were on the Brixton demo. Hundreds of others went to the Bookfair instead. News of the riot/police attack was actually brought to the Bookfair by one enterprising anarcho, already facing charges from March 31st, who thought it better to disappear after the crowd was pushed to Brixton tube station, and who legged it by bike to Conway Hall and announced the news from the stage, no-one there having yet heard the word. This is before mobile phones became de rigeur for anyone other than yuppies – when news travelled at the speed of a second hand racing bike through London traffic (about 30 minutes from Brixton Hill to Red Lion Square).

There’s more on the TSDC at the end of our post on the March 31st 1990 riot

There’s some news coverage of the day here:

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Today in London policing history, 1984: cops raid anarchist 121 Centre, Brixton, looking for guns…

121 Railton Road, Brixton, South London – through the 1980s and 90s one of London’s most active anarchist squatted spaces. Brixton anarchists had occupied 121 Railton Road in late 1980; some local anarchos had been using Sabaar, the Black radical bookshop that occupied the space from 1977, as a postal address. But 121’s history goes back to 1973, when local Black Panthers Olive Morris and Liz Obi squatted the flat above the launderette there…

When Sabaar moved to funded rented premises in Coldharbour Lane, quick off the mark the place was squatted for an anarchist centre. The run-down building on the corner of Chaucer Road was to become a legend, both locally and worldwide, as a  bookshop, meeting space, cafe, office for numberless subversive projects, late-night club, and much more. Many of the crew that squatted the building had been involved in local squatting and political activity before the birth of 121 (notably the occupation of Greater London Council-owned Kilner house, in Pegasus Place, Kennington Oval, in October 1980).

To list the groups that used 121 as a meeting space or office would take several blogposts… Just some of the most significant being Black Flag, the long-running anarchist paper; the Black Cross (linked to Black Flag for years), a support group for anarchist, and other class struggle prisoners; the Kate Sharpley Library, an archive of international anarchist material (which was moved out in 1984, as the building was threatened with eviction and by fascist attack: KSL moved over the road to St George Mansions and later out of London), South London branches of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement; the London end of the Greenham Common women’s peace camp; South Wales Miners Support Group, during the ’84-’85 Strike; Brixton Squatters Aid and their newspaper Crowbar; the provocative South London Stress mag, which started as an underground bulletin among council workers…  Later in its life, 121 hosted Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax; radical womens mags Shocking Pink and Bad Attitude; the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front; anarcho freesheets Autognome and Contraflow; the list goes on.  As well as this the cheap evening meals, late night club in the basement, later the seminal Dead By Dawn rave nights and endless punk gigs… The bookshop was sometimes famously unpredictable in its opening hours, often falling prey to such varied excuses for its closed doors as sudden arrests for shoplifting, workers being off rioting here or abroad, and in especially hard winters, the place being too cold to sit in (of course there were also the odd folk s’posed to be doing the shift who just went to sleep on the bench by the front window without opening the shutters). The doorway became a graffiti board of complaint (“I came from Sweden and you were closed”), calls to revolt and general abuse.

In the mid-1980s the 121 was at its most active, part of a growing network of anarchists in London involved in squatting, the anti-capitalist Stop the City actions, solidarity with the striking miners, and numerous other movements and campaigns… This activity had not gone unnoticed by the boys in blue (another target of the 121ers, strongly involved in resistance to the violent policing of brixton, especially the frontline on Railton Road, which was viciously racist and anti-squatter… Local cops had recently supported Lambeth Council’s eviction of 6 squatted houses in Effra Parade, just round the corner, where several 121ers and friends lived. Special Branch carried out regular surveillance of the centre’s post throughout the 80s (a pretty boring job I would say…) In August 1984 this police attention climaxed in a raid on 121 and four local squats where some of the collective lived.

Let the collective tell the story:

“TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high‑up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti‑rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having two small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent three hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. “Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?” asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement And up to the roof

Even Ted Knight, Lambeth Council Leader and an old enemy of ours, had to admit “There has never been any suggestion that those people who run the bookshop have been involved in terrorism in any way … It is outrageous that their personal lives should have been interfered with in this way.”

Lambeth Council are in the process of taking us to Court to evict us after we have been in occupation for 3 and a half years. The case will probably be up late September or October.

WHY ALL THIS BARBARITY & BRUTALITY

  1. Because we don’t conform… we don’t want to wait 10 years for a shitty flat when hundreds lie empty. We’re not amused by Milton Keynes, the SAS, pin‑up girls, Lady Di or Dallas. We organise to help ourselves without being controlled by anyone.
  1. Because we bring out uncensored news and information, that you’d never see on television or in the press.
  1. Because we support the miners in their heroic class war against the rich scum who live off our backs.
  1. Because they need a scapegoat, And its easy to slander us as ‘criminals’, and the raid as not ‘political’ when a “Firearms” warrant is used. Its easy to attack people if they can be divided off, isolated from others be they blacks, gypsies, foreigners, anarchists… we threaten that process with our solidarity.
  1. Inspector Speed who was supervising the raids has said ‑ falsely ‑ in the past that we were a drink and gambling club.

Such police clearly want us out of Brixton.

Our only “crime” is to seek freedom. The police attack us because we produce papers have cafes, housing aid, jumble sales and benefits for local causes and the miners. Because we oppose authority, government, imposed power groups and the ruling class in every way we can.

Probably you don’t support our politics, but you cannot support police terror tactics either. It takes all sorts to make up a Community and we are here to stay. Police attacks are used first against ‘minority’ groups … Tomorrow it could be YOU who wakes up to see the Thatcheroid Daleks bursting into your bedroom with guns and axes!

We should also like to protest the continuing harassment of local black youth and squatters, as well as people collecting for the miners by the police. Maybe they are trying to provoke us so they can try out their latest riot gear, as they nearly did on THURSDAY 16th August 1984 in Railton Road, at 5 pm.

AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL! RESIST THE P0LICE STATE!”

And here’s an account of one of those nicked in the accompanying raids on a nearby squat:

“IF THEY COME IN THE MORNING

There I was, dreaming blissfully of being asleep in a big warm bed with my friend. CRASH…CRASH…THUMP….

Mmmm. people breaking down the door? A herd of elephants charging up the stair? I opened my eyes and closed them, quick! – Oh Fuck – policemen standing round the bed! My friend was poking me urgently in the ribs. – We’re being raided – I opened my eyes again…. They were still there. I thought of resisting, let them drag me naked and screaming into the street. Better not. We got up and struggled into clothes as hordes of pigs searched the house. They got my passport. Radioed in. Oh Shit – I’m on their list!

Kiss goodbye and dragged out. Not knowing the bloke upstairs is also nicked for having a skinny grass plant. Not knowing that 3 other squats and 121 Bookshop were also being stormed at he same time, using search warrants for firearms!

Brixton Police Station, cold and boredom, blood and shit on the walls and anarchist graffiti. Through the spyhole I see one of my neighbours being brought in. `How many have they got? I start worrying about all possible things I ever did against the law. Not much really.

Interview time. Tell us about 121 Bookshop. I keep complaining I haven’t been charged, they must be scouring the files for a frame-up. Sign here for the paint bombs and truncheon found in your house.  – not bloody likely-

2nd interview, Special Branch. What do you know about Class War? –Never heard of it – What about Direct Action? – Not a member, as you probably know – What demos do you go to? Jesus what is this? –

I refuse to answer more questions, realising they’ve got nothing on me. Complaining that I’m being interned for political reasons. I expect them to get heavy but they don’t. Seems like a cock-up?

3rd interview. Shit. We suspect you skipped a warrant under a false name after Stop the City, ‘threatening behaviour’. – Certainly not, No way, would I lie to you?

Here are the papers. Here is your photograph…Oh yes so it is, um, er…-

I’m carted off to the City. Another 20 hours of boredom. Cops come down to ask silly questions about the next Stop the City. – Are the Hells Angels coming? – I see you got the paint bombs ready already – Will the miners come down? … I don’t know nothing. They’re looking forward to it like it was The Big Match.

I have to stay overnight. Next day I trot out my excuses and get fined £40. Then off for breakfast with my friends.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog… Shit, no guns down here either…

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences, over the road from 121…

The myth goes that the uncovering of the basement by the police during the raid was an ironic gift to the 121, as he basement was put into use as the dancefloor of the 121 Club, dak, dingy and dangerously low ceilinged as it was, and only accessible via a steep and lethal wooden stair… nevertheless thousands partied there, from the Club, to Dead By Dawn speedcore nights, through punk gigs, to Queeruption and much more ( the memory of the Anarcho-dales male strip crew will never leave those who were there..!)

The raid had little impact otherwise. 121 would continue for another 15 years, to be evicted almost exactly 15 years later in August 1999… This time it was 150 armed police who swarmed on the bulding, early in the morning, to ensure the 121 was eradicated.

We know the police took an interest in 121; we know the mail was examined in Herne Hill sorting office before it was delivered to us. What we don’t yet know is – were any of the undercover police of the Special Demonstration Squad more heavily involved in spying on us? Several certainly visited the place now and then – John Dines, Jim Boyling, Andy Coles all dropped in. But we’re still wondering if any other old mates were narks in disguise… Watch this space…

An ex-121er

Today in London gay history: the South London Gay Centre evicted, Brixton, 1976

In 1972, some transpontine activists in the Gay Liberation Front founded a South London branch, which initially met from 1972 in the Minet Library, North Brixton. Among their early actions was street theatre in drag, parading though Brixton market. After meetings at the Library, the GLFers often went to the Paulet Arms in Paulet Road round the corner for a drink, although the pub wouldn’t let them use the function room for discos (Fun fact: 25 years later the early planning meetings for the 1998 Brixton Reclaim the Streets party were also held in the Paulet)… Later the South London group met at the Hanover Arms in Stockwell, (where they WERE allowed to have socials upstairs!), at the crypt in St Matthews Church opposite the Town Hall, where they were once besieged and bottled by bigots; then at Oval House Theatre in Kennington… Later still at the Hamilton Arms in Railton Road (a lovely pub, another old hangout of yer past tense typist, where we sometimes held 121 Collective Centre meetings in the late 80s/early 90s, on days when the 121 was too cold to even sit in! – this pub is sadly now gone).

The GLFers also met at the Women’s Centre at 80 Railton Road. GLF socials and dances – attended by 100s of people – were held at the Surrey Halls in Stockwell and even at Lambeth Town Hall.

The GLF group was still active in 1974, doing a Gay community zap (action) against Tescos (not sure of the reason).

In 1973 or 74, three South London GLF members stood as GLF candidates for the Council elections; none got in; later Malcolm Greatbanks stood again in the second General Election of 1974. “Being against Parliamentary Democracy as a meaningless sham it was pointed out that we were just doing this for the free publicity.” Canvassers came in for a fair share of abuse, including a deliberate attempt to run one down – possibly by NFers, as the GLF had been active in opposing NF candidates in Brixton that year. At the Election count a number of GLF drag queens in feather boas livened up the evening!

The Railton Road ‘frontline’ was an alternative and rebellious hotchpotch at this time – along with the black street culture and numerous blues parties, squats, there was a constant sense of siege from police, sparking various confrontations. It was also diversely counter-cultural: there were two women’s centres on Railton Road, an Anarchist News Service, Squatters Groups, a Claimants’ Union for those on welfare benefits, the Brixton Advice Centre, Icebreakers (a gay liberation counselling group), the Black Panthers and Race Today Collective, black centres and bookshops… and a food cooperative, all on the frontline, or on nearby streets like Shakespeare Road and Atlantic Road.

However, Gays on the frontline often faced hostility, from some local blacks and some other local whites: GLF members were thrown out of two local pubs, the George (The George had also previously been prosecuted under the Race Relations Act for barring black people) for holding hands, and picketed the pubs over it.

In March 1972 GLF activists were thrown out of the Union Tavern in Camberwell New Road, for leafleting; the landlord’s son had punched one of the GLFers the previous day… (Not sure if any of this was purely homophobic, or anti-political – sometimes venues that were ok with gay events were quietist, wanting to avoid anything political or activist/lefty – or possibly rightwing-based? Especially interesting as The Union Tavern was hosting gay skinhead dances a couple of years before this time, late 1960s, I think: “Tuesday night was skinhead night and you could walk into the pub and there’d be a sea of crops. Fantastic! And everyone was gay! We’d dance to reggae all night, you know, the real Jamaican stuff, and all in rows, strict step. It was a right sight seeing all those skins dancing in rows. The atmosphere was electric.”

The South London Gay Centre

In May 1974, no 78 Railton Road, (next door to one branch of Brixton Women’s Centre at no 80) was squatted, giving birth to the South London Community Gay Centre.

“During the short period of its existence the Centre acted as a focal point bringing together gay people from many different backgrounds through social activities and political action.

The Gay Centre, as a self-determined group, also took its place among the other community based groups to challenge prejudice, discrimination, heterosexist attitudes and the complacency of officialdom.

There were many different activities at the Centre. A modern dance group was formed and run by Andreas Demetriou.

There was a wrestling group in the basement and, to counter the ‘macho’ posturing of the group, a sewing bee and knitting circle was formed in the upstairs front room run chiefly by Alistair Kerr and Malcolm Watson.”

The Centre was sneeringly described by a visiting reporter as “a shabby set of rooms”! Another visitor to the Squat said: “I was expecting some sort of brotherhood and it wasn’t like that. It was rather like… people who were all already close.” The Centre seems to have lasted till around 1976. The Centre applied for a council grant at one point, but were turned down… the Council was old school right wing Labour at this point, so being gay was deeply suspicious, and squatting in council property probably didn’t help. Some of the young New left labourites objected to their being turned down, including Norwood Councillor, soon to be infamous Lambeth would-be Lenin Ted Knight!

“There were weekly discos in the basement, individual counsellors and regular meetings of the Centre ‘collective’ to determine which campaigns and social events we would support and be involved in.

Discos were also organised at Lambeth Town Hall and an open day was held for members of the public to come and meet us.

Besides all of this there was a regular duty rota so that all the people who visited the Centre would be greeted and made welcome. The 1976 Gay Pride event was also organised by Brixton Gays.”

NB: Around this time, there was actually a black gay ‘blues’ club, on Railton Road, quite well known in the pre-Gay Liberation days, run by a Jamaican woman named Pearl (who was also mildly famous as a ‘naïve’ painter); although according to one source “there was little contact between black and white gays on the Frontline”, others remember things differently, that some ex GLFers did go to Pearl’s shebeen. “It wasn’t quite Queer Nation, but we did enjoy ourselves, in an environment that was free from the usual racism that was pretty much run of the mill prejudices encountered by black people on the gay scene at the time.” (Terry Stewart)

The Centre drew a number of people into the area, who squatted several back-to-back houses on Railton and Mayall Roads, (both very run down then, with lots of empties and knackered houses) with a shared garden in between them.

These houses became the nucleus for further political activity after the closure of the Centre but equally it grew, over time, as an experiment in new communal living arrangements for gay people with varying levels of success.

South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group

“The South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group, which later became the Brixton Faeries, produced several plays, sketches and street theatre performances. They were mostly unashamedly agit prop but later became more sophisticated with better characterisation and plotting. Beginning with a Gay Dragon paraded in a local street festival the group went on to perform sketches for local community groups.

The first play, ‘Mr Punch’s Nuclear Family’, was performed at the Centre and in a local school playground at a community event. The play attacked patriarchal values by showing the devastating effects on the wife and gay son of ‘rule by the father’ and the collusion of the male-dominated authorities in acquitting the father of murdering them (1975).

Next came ‘Out of it’ (1975/76) showing the relationship between patriarchal values, fascism and the extremes of christian morality and how they contributed to gay oppression. This was followed by ‘Minehead Revisited or The Warts that Dared to Speak their Name’.

A highly topical and controversial play at the time about the Jeremy Thorpe trial at the Old Bailey. As leader of the Liberal Party he had been accused of plotting to have a former male lover intimidated and even killed in order to keep him quiet about their affair (1977-80).

‘Tomorrow’s too Late’ was an anarchic blend of music, song and fantasy around gay activist groups and the banning of Gay News by WH Smith for carrying an advert about a paedophile group and later a poem by James Kirkup suggesting a homosexual relationship between Christ and a Roman soldier (1977-80). ‘Gents’ told the story of ‘cottaging’, that is, the reasons why men have sex with other men in public toilets.

The more respectable gays viewed cottaging as repulsive and giving ordinary, decent gay people a bad name. The police frequently arrested and charged men with ‘gross indecency’ often ruining their lives in terms of losing jobs and destroying relationships.

Brixton Faeries decided to expose the oppressive nature of police entrapment and to present cottaging in positive terms as an ideal fantasy even going so far as to suggest the local council attempting to stump up funding to ‘improve facilities’ (1978-80).

We also did Joint productions with various other groups such as Gay Sweatshop in ‘Radio Gay’ at the Oval House Community Centre.

Most of the productions were at fringe theatres or community centres and one performance of ‘Out of it’ was in front of the Young Communist League who were shocked to see two men kissing on stage.”

Many people who used the Centre were unemployed and could not afford to fund it. Infighting between different factions and lack of funding contributed to the demise of the Centre.”

However the final blow came when the Centre was evicted, on 21st April 1976, by police and bailiffs so that the private owners could take vacant possession of the property and sell it to Lambeth Council for redevelopment.

The building was however re-squatted, at least for a while:

“The Gay Centre did not close due to eviction. We re-squatted the next day !
It closed after the principal people involved gave up the struggle with those we rudely called “The Nerds” who took over but were so un-together that they failed to pay the electricity and phone bills and and within months, it had collapsed.”

This marked the end of the “first public and visible institution with a clear gay identity. With this closure the focus for political and social activity shifted from the Centre to the gay squats.”

From about 1972 on there had been a number of gay squats/communes in Railton and Mayall Roads, later there seem to have been 11 houses in a group, back to back with a big communal garden. They had discos in basements… “people would bring their own records… we just had a few coloured lights, although it could get quite randy down there. It was more Dante’s Inferno than ‘Disco Inferno’ “(Ian Townson). Apparently the attempt to establish a ‘common gay identity’ didn’t really work, and there were divisions, due to different class and backgrounds of the residents… often the splits came down to “love and peace and brown rice” versus “political activists”. Later several of these squats joined Brixton Housing Co-op, and were redeveloped into single person units.

“While this made for more secure accommodation and the shared garden was kept in tact it led to a more ‘privatised’ existence and some of the original elan and spirit was lost as a result.

However the gay households are all still there with more or less permanent inhabitants.

Gay people arrived at the squats for many different reasons. Some were desperately fleeing from oppressive situations in their lives. Others were glad to find the company of unashamedly out gay people rather than remain confused and isolated.

Some consciously saw this as an opportunity to attack ‘straight’ society through adopting an alternative lifestyle that challenged the prevailing norms of the patriarchal nuclear family and private property.

There were many visitors from overseas. Everything would be shared in common including sex partners and gender bending was encouraged to dissolve rigid categories of masculine men and feminine women. For others dressing in drag was a sheer pleasure and an opportunity for ingenious invention.

The ‘cultural desert’ in South London offered little social space in which to gather strength as ‘out’ gay people. The ‘straight’ gay scene was inhospitable, exploitative and a commercial rip off  (it is now gay-owned, exploitative and a commercial rip off).

With a common garden between the houses the back doors were often left open so that people could come and go in and out of each others squats.

The kitchen more often than not became the hub of food, conversation and play. In the shared garden people would gather to dine Al Fresco or play music or even rehearse for various theatre productions. Even just camp it up for the hell of it.”

Many of the Centre’s gay activists continued to be active in Brixton after the demise of the Centre. The National Gay News Defence Committee was originally based at 146 Mayall Road and then moved to 157 Railton Road. The group was set up when Mary Whitehouse, a right-wing moral crusader, prosecuted Gay News on a charge of blasphemous libel for carrying the notorious poem by James Kirkup, imagining Jesus having sex with a roman soldier…

“This happened at a time when there was also much police activity against gay people in different parts of the country on cottaging charges and the wrongful assumption that we were paedophiles.”

With the successful prosecution of Gay News the NGNDC became the Gay Activists’ Alliance, a late-70s attempt to repoliticise the gay scene and link gay liberation to other struggles; which continued with both national and international campaigns with many locally active groups.

There was also a gay socialist paper “Gay Noise’. Some ex-GLFers set up ‘Icebreakers’ in Brixton, this was a radical counselling group which helped many people to come to terms with their sexuality and come out. The idea had arisen from the GLF’s ‘Counter Psychiatry’ sub-group, which attempted to challenge psychiatry’s treatment of lesbians and gays as sick or mad.

“Also the fascist National Front was particularly active at this time; mostly against immigrants, black people and left-wing organisations but also several gay establishments had been attacked by them including the Vauxhall Tavern in South London.

In 1978 a massive Anti-Nazi League march came along Railton Road for a Rock Against Racism festival in Brockwell Park. We fully supported the demonstration and the marchers passed under a banner we had slung high across Railton Road saying: Brixton Gays Welcome Anti-Fascists.

Also there was Anita Bryant, the Florida Orange lady, who campaigned in the United States against gays. Her famous phrase was: ‘God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’ and she became even more famous when an irate gay activist shoved a cream pie in her face in full view of television cameras.

Union Place Community Resource Centre in Brixton… encouraged us to go along and make posters, diaries, badges, calendars and banners for our campaigns. Ian Townson and Colm Clifford from the gay community became employees and Colm initiated ‘Homosexual Posters’ from there producing pictorial biographies of gay people and even gay Christmas cards.

Brixton Riots

A special mention should be made of the Brixton riots of 1981 which happened chiefly as a result of the racism and heavy-handed harassment of black people by the police. The riots were centred around Railton Road and when Brixton was burning we showed our solidarity with the oppressed by joining them on the streets.

We even took tables and chairs out onto the street in front of the gay squats for a celebration party – some people in drag – getting a mixed reception from people on the street. Some hostile, others indifferent, some amused.”

Two of the Brixton gay squatters were sent to prison for a couple of years for supplying petrol to the rioters for Molotov cocktails…

Many of the original gay squats survive as co-op houses in Railton and Mayall Roads, lots with their original residents.

Some of this post was nicked from here

(where there are lots of great pics of the Centre and other gay squats, and a great thread of comments from former South London GLF folk and Centre goers)

and from No Bath but Plenty of Bubbles: An oral history of the Gay Liberation Front, ed Lisa Power.

But… there are some other accounts available now of gay lib and related skulduggery of the times…

here’s a previous post we did on Bethnal Rouge, another offshoot of the GLF

Today in London radical history: the 1981 Brixton Uprising

“Between 6.10pm on Friday, 10th April, 1981, and 11.34pm, on Monday April 13th April 1981, during a very warm early spring interlude, serious disorder occurred in the immediate area of Brixton, SW9, within the greater London Borough of Lambeth, when large numbers of persons, predominantly black youths, attacked police, police vehicles (many of which were totally destroyed), attacked the Fire Brigade and damaged appliances, damaged private premises and vehicles, destroyed private premises and vehicles by fire, looted, ransacked and damaged shops…” (Metropolitan Police Report on April 1981 Brixton Riot)

“All you fucking cunts, it’ll be your turn next, the whites will turn on you, come on you cunt, take a swing at me man to man.” (White policeman to black passers-by, Villa Road, Brixton, 11th April 1981.)

After more than a decade of repeated attacks, arrests, harassment, and racist provocations by the local police and the paramilitary riot squad, the Special Patrol Group, in April 1981, Brixton erupted in a massive uprising.

The riot – followed by more in July, part of a nationwide wave of disorder – shocked the British state. Though labelled ‘race riots’ by the press, in fact blacks and whites fought side by side, in the first anti-police riots for more than a century. The riot was a prelude to widespread uprisings in communities across Britain that took place in July.

The following is mostly taken (with some additions) from the pamphlet ‘We Want to Riot, Not To Work’, originally published in April 1982, by the Riot Not to Work Collective, a group of anarchists who lived in Brixton and took part in the April ’81 riot. As the original publishers wrote: “Generalisations about events are hardly useful unless they reflect the experience of those involved in them. The contributors to the first section express their thoughts, feelings and aspirations during the course of the April uprising. The first account also gives some background information about Brixton and the events which led up to the uprising. All these accounts were originally written just afterwards.”

Something of the background to the riot in terms of policing and black resistance to it can be read here

We have left the accounts in the present tense, to preserve the immediacy of the writing. Obviously social relations in Brixton have changed massively in the 37 years since 1981, as the initial description of the ‘Frontline’ most clearly indicates – though some burning issues remain.

THE FIRE THIS TIME

By now the social and economic background to the Brixton riots will be familiar to most people. A housing waiting list, in the borough in which Brixton is situated, of 18,000; a third of the housing stock sub-standard; high unemployment with about 2 out of 3 of the unemployed being black; a high robbery rate (in fact the highest in London, it being twice the nearest figure); next to no social amenities.

This is all very true. The area around the Railton Road (Frontline/Mayall Road triangle) is inhabited by mainly black council tenants and mainly white squatters (leftists/anarchists/marginals). Empty houses are also used by local blacks as drinking and gambling clubs, dope centres and venues for all-night ‘Blues’ (parties with sound systems pumping out non-stop reggae). Down the Frontline a black crafts centre has recently started in one empty building and further down a former black bookshop is now a squatted anarchist bookshop. People down here tend to live on the left-overs of capitalist society. For years, the Triangle has been on the drawing board for demolition but only in the last two has any attempt been made to carry this out. But the council keeps running out of money so it has been coming down piecemeal, making a rough area look even rougher. However, the maze of streets west of the Front-line look brighter as they have increasingly come under the occupation of white, liberal professionals and self-made respectable blacks.

Down the Frontline there are two distinct cultures – the black and the white – and it is the black culture which predominates and on the fringes of which the young whites participate. Dope and Reggae. The blacks have their own language – Patois – and this gives them an independent cultural identity that is not easily co-opted or diluted . Perhaps the most relevant aspect of this culture (in terms of the riots) is that it is very much a street culture (despite British weather). Winter or summer there are always crowds of blacks out on the Frontline rapping, smoking, laughing, visibly occupying their social space.

But it is the cops who claim they control the streets of London. Certainly in the two years I’ve lived on the Frontline I’ve noticed that the cops have always tried to intimidate the Frontline community with constant vehicle and foot patrols and less frequently, horse patrols. (The most bizarre policing incident I’ve ever seen happened a few months ago when a cop on horseback chased someone down Mayall Road).

Actually, the cops know they cannot fully control the Frontline. Despite their claims and their patrols the police policy on the Frontline has been one of containment – periodical raids to remind locals who is boss and to warn them not to get out of hand. Operations such as the one in 1978, when the SPG scaled off the Frontline and searched anybody and everybody, have caused outrage. Blacks, especially the second generation, are, on the whole, defiant. A month or so ago a black motorist tore up the ticket a cop had just given him and threw it back in his face, to cheers from the assembled crowd.

The cops constantly use the SUS laws to stop and search young blacks. And they do this with vengeance. Another events on the Frontline will illustrate this. Two vehicles collided and the cops on the scene immediately searched both vehicles and their drivers and passengers. The accident was secondary. With such everyday deprivation and such mindless state bullying, for being deprived, the one thing which united the disparate elements of the Frontline community is a burning hatred for the cops. What most surprised local people when the Bristol riots happened last year was that they hadn’t happened here first. Another surprise was that the anarchist graffiti which went up after [the 1980 riot in] Bristol – Bristol yesterday, Brixton today – took a year to be made real.

The establishment knew this too. Only a few months ago Lambeth Council published a report criticising the cops and predicting trouble.

THE WEEK BEFORE THE RIOTS

The constant intense policing of Brixton and of the Frontline in particular was heightened in the week leading up to the riots. At 11pm on Friday April 3rd, the Frontline area around Dexter and Leeson Roads was sealed off by cops with no-one being allowed in or out for over an hour. Over 20 arrests were made. Then, in the following week, Operation Swamp 81 saw over 1,000 people (mainly young blacks) stopped and searched. This was all adding to the increasing frustration of local people. At about 2.30am on Friday 10th I was stopped and threatened by 3 young blacks with bottles. This confused and angered me (it was the first time I’d ever been hassled on the Frontline) and it was only later that I realised that they had been victims of Swamp 81, perhaps only minutes before meeting me.

On Friday 10th at about 5pm a young black with a knife wound was stopped on the Frontline by cops. What followed is the source of many different stories. (The Notorious DC Duncan was in charge, a man with a very bad rep locally. Onlookers claimed the cops knelt on the bloke and kept him there bleeding for 20 minutes. Obviously the old bill claimed they’d been helping the lad.)

Whatever happened (and it isn’t necessary to seek justification for what followed anyway) the cops were attacked by a gang of locals, the young bloke freed and taken to hospital. A brief battle with cop re-inforcements occurred. The cops took this as a challenge and so the following day, Saturday 11th, the Frontline was under police occupation. “Brixton was thoroughly over-policed. There were officers at every street corner, transits parked all over the place… it feels, once again, like the police have taken your town over… A local shopkeeper, not known for his radical views, was to be heard proclaiming that he wouldn’t be surprised if the youths started fighting again. And he wouldn’t blame them either.” (The Leveller)

On the Saturday morning the rumour went round, that the stabbing victim, Michael Bailey, had died due to police delays…

Usually the cops patrol the Frontline. But on that Saturday they parked up and down the Frontline every 50 yards, just sitting in their vans waiting for something to happen. It was a warm day so the Frontline was full of people standing around doing the usual things and, this time, eyeing the occupation force with hatred. All afternoon most people expected trouble of some sort. At about 5pm in the afternoon a plain-clothes cop received the free gift of a brick on the head for wanting to search a black guy’s car. Up in Atlantic Road an arrest was attempted and this further angered an already angry crowd. Most of this crowd was gathered in the space at the apex itself and is at the beginning of Atlantic Road, The odd brick began to fly at the cops isolated in the crowd. A window was smashed. Tension rose. Electric. Then plain-clothes cops appeared from the crowd and joined the uniformed lot. Battle fines were now clearly drawn and the first barrage of bricks flew in the direction of the cops. They threw a few back and charged. At first we retreated a little but, realising we were many, they were few, we stopped. Then, spontaneously, the whole afternoon’s tension being released like a spring, we charged them.

(What follows may seem confused and incoherent. But this is how I experienced the rioting. I report on only what I saw and heard. Certain incidents are omitted for obvious reasons).

A massive surge of adrenalin. War whoops. Class war whoops. ‘Whoops! Class War!’ A scramble for bricks. ‘I must have a brick. Where are the bricks?’ A hail of bricks. The cops are confused as they realise they are no longer in control. Puppets without a role. They look at us, at one another and around themselves. Then. Run. Away. Down Mayall Road, leaving their vehicles in our hands. in the twinkling of a rioting eye the vehicles are smashed up and turned over. A light is instantly provided and poof! Up goes a cop’s van. Wild cheers. Laughter, dances of joy. I see a comrade and we beam solidarity at one another.

Our savage celebrations are interrupted by a charge of cops. (They had regrouped with re-inforcements). The crowd splits. The cops are mad. Truncheons thrashing. I run to safety up a side street and meet another comrade. As we point with child-like glee at the rising pall of smoke; a white guy is bricked, inexplicably. He is immediately defended by black youths and all eyes look around for the idiot thrower. A nearby friend has transport and as I got to seek its availability a black guy bearing an old grudge grabs me, revenge in his eyes. Before he can find an excuse to brick me (was the brick which hit the other guy meant for me?) I make it plain that assistance is needed. Van not available. Questions from friends. Tune in to police radio. They are out of their heads. Sounds of windows going in on Coldharbour Lane. Back onto the streets.

In Coldharbour Lane an SPG van is on its side like some stranded whale. A boutique has its windows smashed and twisted dummies litter the pavement. Crowds of onlookers. Glass smashes in Electric Avenue. A jewellers is looted. Another further up. Black and white youths kick their way through the roller shutters. I watch out for cops on Brixton Road, Announce to the passing shoppers, who are all eyes, that free jewellery is available should they want it. Am ignored. Notice that the jewellers is, perfectly, next door to a consumer advice centre. Necklaces, bracelets, rings and watches are thrown into the pavement. Jewellery in the gutter. Great! I have a game of football with some bracelets, a game I can’t lose. There are some squabbles over loot. Depressing.

Move out onto Brixton Road. Burton’s tailors is done in and a dummy set ablaze. Magical sight. Cops arrive. Pull dummy onto pavement. The tube station is closed but Brixton Road is still open to traffic. The motorists and bus passengers look in confusion as looting spreads to both sides of the road. A black youth kicks in plate glass windows as if he is swatting flies. More cops. Burglar alarms scream out to deaf ears. More and more cops. Running battles. More looting. Then I notice there’s no more traffic. The cops have sealed the main road off from the cop shop to the Town Hall.

Looting and smashing now all along Brixton Road area, the market area and up Acre Lane. My name is called out. Another comrade. We shake hands muttering ‘Great! Great!’ I give him a garbled resume. Bulk of crowd now around Brixton Oval. Woolworths smashed and looted. Television sets, stereo, carted off. Some smashed. Occasional cop van races through and is smashed. Many in the crowd realise cops have to pass us to get into the battle area so crowds line up on either side of Brixton Road with bottles and bricks. ‘Here’s another’ Smash. ‘And another.’ Smash. A proletarian fairground. ‘And the next one please!’ Smash. Everyone a winner. Cops wise up and a convoy arrives, stops and a horde of meanies piles out, truncheons thrashing. Crowd splits up but sniping still possible. A charge and we escape up a side street. All casual, like, we call into a pub for a drink. A rumour goes round that a cop has been kidnapped. My comrade and I smirk into our glasses.

We decide to go to the Frontline. It is now dark and we worm our way through back streets, avoiding cop cordons. We approach the top of the Frontline along Kellett Road and are met with an unbelievable sight. Three rows of cops stretch across the Frontline, facing into it. A non-stop hail of bricks batters their shields. Then suddenly a molotov (the first I’ve ever seen) comes up and over and smash! whoof! lands on some shields, which are hurriedly dropped. Look down Mayall Road and see the Windsor Castle (pub) ablaze. The Frontline is barricaded with burning vehicles. I’m elated and pissed off. Elated that the Frontline is a no-go area and pissed off that I’m now cut off from defending it. I look around. Exhausted and injured cops sitting on the ground smoking fags. The fires, the cops, the atmosphere. Class war. ‘Will they bring the army in?’ Belfast.

“Councillor John Boyle, in Railton Road, used his loudhailer to try to calm the situation: there was an attempt at negotiation. Previously, some of the youths had offered to stop throwing bottles and bricks in return for a release of all prisoners. Senior officers said, ‘no way’ “ (The Leveller)

We detour to the south end of the Frontline, which is also sealed off. Watch a shop blaze. The sub-post office has disappeared. Back to the Town Hall area. Cops now holding strategic positions – the big junction at the Town Hall, the cops station, etc. Still looting. More friends arrive. Talk. Back to the Frontline. All fires out by now. It’s getting on for midnight. Things much quieter. Cops slowly regaining control. Up to cop shop. Barricaded with cop vans. Under siege. Cops attack us and force people down back alley. Beatings. Arrests. We are split up. I wander back along Brixton Road surveying damage. Only a few civilians are about now. Cops are in control. Get off the streets. Talk to friends for hours and then back to Frontline for celebratory drink. One last look at the blitzed Frontline in the dawn light and then sleep. I dream of cops, cops and more cops.

Sunday 12th. Tired, hung-over. Rage at the newspapers. Commissioner McNee and others have the gall to blame ‘outside agitators’. (The cops were the outside agitators.) Frontline is crowded with people debating. Lots of cops patrolling warily. Firemen inspect damage. Discuss events with friends. News of arrests. Early evening. More trouble, but more easily contained, as over 1000 more cops are in the area. Brixton is sealed off, up as far as Kennington Oval. Fascist attack in Villa Road [famous squatted street: NF members attacked squatters here on Sunday night]. Cop station again heavily protected. Cops use ‘Nightsun’ helicopter for the first time. (Can light up an area the size of a football pitch and is fitted with infra-red cameras.) More cops. They’re gaining the upper hand.

A Long Week

Since the weekend there has been confusion and paranoia. The gutter press stress not only ‘outside agitators’ but also ‘white anarchists conspiracy’. Comrades are raided. (Who’s next?) Where are they held? Which court will they appear in? First fines are heavy~£200. Hassles about getting bail. Newspapers print photographs showing faces. (Who’s next?) Frontline now quieter than usual. Massive police presence but this isn’t immediately visible. Coaches in side streets, up to 2 miles away. Reports filter back about treatment of those arrested. Heavy. Can’t sleep. (How can the people of Northern Ireland have survived 10 years of this without cracking up?) The black community is divided. The rally for Easter Sunday is called off. Recriminations. The Brixton Defence Committee and Lambeth Law Centre are organising counter-information and compiling a list of cases against the police. It’s still early days yet.

Easter Weekend. Frontline much quieter than usual. Brixton still occupied. All varieties of political groupings trying to colonise the local initiative. (The worst I saw was Militant, with the headline ‘Brixton – Blame the Tories’.) Difficult to judge the atmosphere. People having to re-think, trying to get these extraordinary events in perspective. It is now a higher level of confrontation. All the shops in the market and main road areas are boarded up. For how long? There is talk of more ‘aid’ for the community. Sticking plaster for leprosy. Class society is rotten through and through. Where will the next eruption take place? The struggle here is far from over.

For people who live outside Brixton who wish to express solidarity – you have police on your streets.

THE DAY THE IMAGE CRACKED / THE HONEYMOON ENDED/ THE GAME WAS UP/DIXON OF DOCK GREEN SNUFFED IT etc…

My strongest memory of the Brixton riot (two weeks past at time of writing) was the Saturday afternoon that I returned from shopping at the market and found myself increasingly anxious at the large police presence. This pressure made swallowing food or drink difficult and I was unable to concentrate on anything but the source of my cancerous fretting. The arrogant pigs were every where on my route home and the air seemed thick with humid heat and pressure, like before a storm. I put my weekend shopping in my home and when I came outside I heard an explosion and I either laughed or cried and ran along the street . I saw many faces and it was like a dance without a stage /music / popstars or songs; energy began to flow through my arms and legs, I felt like jumping up and down so I did and all around me perhaps 500 people were whooping and yelling hurrah and leaping about. Police were on the run, running away down Leeson Road and a car was being put over to be used as a barricade… once it was on its side, someone lit some screwed up paper and threw it on the leaking petrol, all stepped back and a small flame suddenly grew into a burst of fire and black smoke clouded up. Down along Railton road I could see some more cars being turned over and I rushed down to help.

From the demolition sites of what was once lived in homes lots of us brought out bricks to break up so that smaller pieces could be used to throw and planks of wood to toss on the burnin’ cars.

Time was at a standstill…. so many bricks did I break up with an iron fence railing that my hands blistered…. a large sheet of corrugated iron was piled up with debris and dragged up to a big crowd and was quickly emptied at coppers behind long shields. Through the smoke I could see a photographer among the police lines with a telescopic lens trying to focus on the group I was in, so we all threw whatever we could find at him but he was just out of reach and our missiles fell short. Some friends arrived and I wore a scarf to cover my face from the cameras and to keep out the smoke; from then on others too began covering their faces. A bus was liberated and the driver quickly pissed off. Following some arguments it was driven down the road at the police lines and it simply went to one side just beyond the burning cars as no-one stayed inside to steer it. But the short journey was a laugh. (Although according to the police petrol bombs were thrown from the bus as it careered down the road?)

“At the corner of Coldharbour Lane and Brixton Road we ran across a group of police officers; we followed. About 20 ran down the road. One, sobbing, when asked whether there was a senior officer present, cried, “senior officers, mate, I haven’t seen a fucking sergeant all night.” They seemed to be the local police, running scared. Further up the road, some policemen had armed themselves with pick-axe handles and were laying out anyone in sight.” (The Leveller)

So much seems out of time context, my mind jumps forward and back: I can recall observing the police maneuvres in Mayall Rd. In Particular a group of plainclothes detectives /vigilantes / police in uniform but without their hats, coats and ties, with their sleeves rolled up. Uniformed (and looking very young) formations were lining up nearby with shields. Then I noticed the long sticks (the ‘pick axe handles’ rarely mentioned in the media) which these plainclothes lot were handing to each other. One bloody faced and overweight pig, who I recognised from an SPG (State Paid Gangster) raid the week before, was letting off a tirade to those who would listen about ‘fucking niggers’. The sight of these goons cursing and tooling up for further aggro made me at once very sick (and I mean really churning inside – have a piss or shit now – and dry throat gagging) and shakingly angry with incredibly strong desire to be a sniper and blow the thugs away with a rifle or some explosive. Together with some other observers we yelled out “FUCK OFF” and they started to look at all the windows on the side of the street facing them across the derelict site . We were masked and I am sure they did not know what we were capable of, so they closed up closer together and then two with shields moved up to pry sheets of corrugated iron apart to get in across the vacant block at us. Suspecting we might become the victims of a snatch squad we checked out the place for escape and where it was likely the pigs would enter. Somewhere in the street a voice called up and asked us if we were thirsty and we came downstairs and onto the street for some quenching beers – the Managers of the George [a local pub notorious for racism, which had barred black people and gays] had pissed off leaving us a lot to drink heh, heh, heh we were all grinning. It was exhilarating; adrenalin and booze went straight to my head, from the street it looked like several cars were on fire in surrounding streets too and I felt like I was really living. Someone actually said “This is history and we’re here, YAHOO!” and I felt amazing, no drug can compare to that exuberant rush/high fun feeling. I warned those nearby to look out for possible snatch squads and went up to see the George, Windsor Castle, Post Office, Plumbers and Dr. Khan (I once was refused to be seen by the good Doctor’s Secretary and the ‘menstrual pain’ turned out to be appendicitis) getting looted and burned. All the bad memories attached to places came back and I thought Brixton is going to explode now that we have a chance to get even. I think the Pakistani newsagents in Effra Parade getting burnt out was a mistake as the woman and two kids only just got out in time and the amount of cash or goods was fuck all. What was a target and what was not (the Tory Club and the local Police Doctor were left alone!) Well it was only the mercenary jerks who were indiscriminate and if the cops had kept out of it for a few days, I think the shithead element would have gotten some aggro back. A woman who was being hassled by some big guys was suddenly surrounded and the men made to leave her alone; likewise some black racists who were picking on a young white were told to fuck off by a quickly gathering group of black, Asian and white, young and old, male and female gay and straight people. The story in the Sun about the rape of a woman which occurred on Saturday night was chosen to divide and frighten people (Black rapists attack white woman headlined!). If the cops had not kept everyone on the run then this and other incidents which the media did not publicise but I know of ( a lone individual who gave shelter to some fugitives from a police raid, then had to put up with 3 hours of machismo display and knife threats for example) would have been dealt with,

Unable to pass through the police cordon at the base of Railton & Mayall road triangle we walked through the back streets which seemed barely changed compared to the picturesque ruins of Railton Road. A stroll past the police meant no harassment because they were desperate to keep up some face it seemed; only those running were stopped. We joined in the window smashing and looting in Electric Avenue and managed to get some booty back through the police cordons by surrounding the person holding the box of goodies and then walking briskly on as if we meant business and did not want to waste time, just get off the street and safely behind doors Once deposited we went out to see the pitched battle between the rigid lines of police and the dancing rebels. We got in a few bricks, bottles and even saw the shit bags get run off the street by one firebomb armed group who then got stuck in with iron bars on fallen cops. On television was the Space Shuttle but it seemed so ridiculous that I could not watch and went back to the street where real decisions were being made then and there. Fires were up and down the street and on the FM band of the radio the Old Bill seemed to be panicking in the Frontline. But Lima Delta Control urged them on as they had orders from ZULU (Whitelaw or MeNee’s sick joke?) If only we had been able to break out of Railton Road as a large group and actually attacked the police station and freed the prisoners… But it was surrounded and the tourist element or passive spectator/innocent bystander types had come as more cops secured the streets. The skirmishes that flared later in the night were hit and run battles, after some soup and sugary tea I collapsed asleep.

SUNDAY – white ribbons with tourists hanging on staring at the burnt out places like zoo exhibits or a fun fair; the idiot priests and social workers who were allowed behind our lines yesterday to get the ultimatum POLICE WITHDRAW and FREE THE PRISONERS, for an arrogant Police Chief and media to coldly deny, had today returned with camera and note taking sociologists, TV, radio and paper journalists (I even met one from Brazil TV),self-appointed Community Leaders and the Left who had come to organise us into their dead Parties, slimey fronts and so on to add insult to our police-inflicted injuries. Rumours of fascist vengeance and off-duty police and Army paramilitary attacks were rife. Politicians who never said a thing about South London let alone Brixton were suddenly falling over themselves to talk about unemployment, the race issue (sic) housing, criminals and or ‘political extremists’ whom the Tory hacks saw as the brains behind the riot. By late afternoon people were brawling with cops again and some looting broke out again. I saw this group of kids grabbing Easter eggs and shouting “It’s Easter early. HA!HA!HA!” which lifted me right out of the depression I was beginning to slide into. Dogs were being used to keep people on the move, especially away from Brixton Police Station with its ridiculous Crime Prevention Exhibition tent outside. I heard lots of youth decide that there were too many coppers and instead to go up Stockwell/Clapham/Herne Hill/Streatham and then it hit me: What has happened in those areas, why haven’t people risen up there? I met people from Balham who had heard nothing but sketchy /flimsy reports and some others from North London who said that nothing was different up there. This was jarring, we had been so well Contained, Isolated, Dispersed that it was all over bar the odd brawl which the bastards would surround and smash much more efficiently second time around One group of people we ran into were not even prepared to stand and fight, we just ran for several blocks. Surprise was gone and I began to worry about those arrested and the slow painful readjustment to routine and survival – paying up and working again- began to take its toll. Most changed their appearance except those who cannot go back to the old slow death and lie low waiting to get back to the ‘no-go’ exhilaration: the chameleons and the bitter will go much, much further next time be it next April, or before?

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK

About 4.30 on the Saturday, I went out to buy some tobacco and saw a crowd gathered outside the Car Hire in Railton Road. There’d been cops up and down our street all day and rumours of police activity over the previous week. Something was going on, so I hung around to see what. People were milling about, some shouting and arguing with the cops, half a dozen or so, who were standing about doing nothing. People continued to gather on their way home from shopping, and more policemen arrived. I couldn’t understand it at all, what everybody was waiting for . The police arrived, gathered in a group at the tip of the triangle, couple of dozen of them, discussing among themselves and from the back of the crowd were thrown a few bottles and insults. As soon as they turned around the throwing stopped, but pretty soon more cops arrived. One van was parked in the middle of the street, and suddenly half a dozen blacks ran out and started rocking it, trying to turn it over. The back doors flew open and out leapt 3 or 4 cops with shields and truncheons, and the blacks disappeared into the crowd. Odd bricks and bottles were being thrown whenever the police turned their backs. They were presenting themselves as a target. There wasn’t any violence until there were 20 or so cops on the scene. I got the impression that if the original cops had kept their cool and just stood around swapping verbals with the crowd, they’d have got bored and gone home, and no riot, but as it was everybody resented more and more cops arriving. What were they there for if not to threaten? So the missiles got more frequent, the thud of a brick against a van or car is a very distinct sound, gets the adrenalin going The police decided to do something and formed a line across the street, which was immediately bombarded.

They started to charge, and everybody ran, so they stopped and the crowd regathered. This happened a couple more times, and then someone tipped over and set on fire a police van at the tip of the triangle, behind the police. This was the first fire of the day. Once again the crowd formed, a bit further away this time, and again the police charged, this time chasing the crowd right down Railton Road. After that it seemed to quiet down a bit. In fact the scene shifted the other way down Mayall Road and Railton Road.

Later in the evening, about 7.30pm, I went out again, walking down Rattray Road. At the Railton Road end of every street leading off Rattray Road, a vehicle was burning. I could see a lot of smoke from Railton Road so I walked on down to the top of Effra Parade where a dozen or so cops were standing about, dishevelled, smoking. I’d never seen a cop roll a fag before. I walked past them and down to Chaucer Road, and down there. People had been looting the plumbers there, had got the safe out of the Post Office and were trying to open it while others were wandering about with bottles of booze, and others were setting fires. The road was littered with bottles, bricks, sticks and riot shields. A Fire Engine was slewed across the road, apparently abandoned There were no uniforms to be seen anywhere. Railton Road was swathed in smoke, so I crossed over and went up Mayall Road, where all seemed oddly quiet, after the destruction going on in the next street. The Windsor Castle pub was smashed up, people scrounging round inside. The little shops opposite Leeson Road were open and doing a fine trade in iced drinks. Thinking it was all over I went home, ignorant of the battles still going on and the looting that had taken place in the market area. There were cops at the scene of the beginning of the riot and at the junction with Coldharbour Lane, but none at all down Mayall Road, Railton Road or the back streets immediately off it. The police had obviously abandoned all hope of controlling the rioters, and I figured they’d withdraw, and let them wear themselves out burning and looting, which is what happened. There wouldn’t have been any riot if the police hadn’t tried to prevent it..

About ten o’ clock I went out again. This time there were thousands of cops everywhere, the whole of Railton Road seemed to be on fire, cars still smoking in the street, the fire engines had got in and were hosing down the buildings, illuminated by searchlights, people wandered up and down, still locals, outsiders wouldn’t come gasping until the next day, if they could get through the blockade . It was like a scene from the Blitz and my initial exhilaration at the people fighting back, turned to depression, that the result should be the destruction of their own neighbourhood and not that of Sloane Square, say. This time I walked around the market area, every other window seemed to be smashed, several shops on fire, including Woolworths, which produced a loud bang just as I walked past, the only incident, apart from the police charges, that frightened me all evening.

People kept ringing up to see if we were all right, apparently not realising how specific the fighting was, under the impression it was a race riot, which it wasn’t. It was a reaction against the police attempt to regulate if not repress local West Indian culture, which taking place as it does on the street, offends the eyes of Authority. People sitting indoors smoking are not a threat, people doing it in the street are, they get to know one another and form a community, rather than being atomised, and rendered impotent. Without that street culture the blacks wouldn’t have been victimised by the police, and without that culture they couldn’t have fought back so successfully.

a young fellah getting busted by a gang of coppers, dragged into a van and bashed so loud you could hear the blows against the walls of van outside in the street. Much adrenalin/fight or flight flows in these circumstances… It is like drinking way too much coffee, you run around get winded, go for it again, always being startled, noises seem harsher as your brain tells your body DANGER. Finally you crash out from exhaustion after talking your friends, family, fellow inmates ears off for hours as you come down from the roller coaster of traumas. Stepping in blood on the streets – whose, when, why questions questions flood into ya mind – oops no time for that, sounds of cop car swerving on the streets, cops bash their – then long – shields with batons to psyche crowds out, while local pensioners fill up bottles with petrol from heaters for the youths to use to defend the area from invading cops…meanwhile a paper seller from a Trot group stands there, ignored, as shop windows are smashed in and loot quickly removed …yikes the memory hole sucks ya in alright – old codger scratches grey beard well young fellah in my day we gave the old bill a right fright that’s forsure … drones on and on and on about the battles of the class war, got this scar in the attack on the cop shop itself blah blah.

WARNING: THE LAUGHTER IS EXPLOSIVE!

SATURDAY 9pm

Sitting in a flat in Streatham – pleasantly pissed after a picnic on the Common . nice weather. cup of coffee. – anyone mind if I put the radio on?        no.

–the London suburb of Brixton is in a State of siege tonight after a night of rioting. Shops have been burned and looted and forty seven police have been injured

-bloody hell –

-let’s go –

confusion, indecision, fear, hope.

wait for the bus . ten minutes. black teenager says – no buses to Brixton – we walk. quickly.

Brixton Hill – we see smoke over towards the market. thousands of Police. they’re scared. very scared. cross Acre Lane to go down the high street. they stop us. “CAN’T go down there”. up Acre Lane. line of cops with riot shields across Delmere Close. We try the pavement anyway. – “oi YOU, you can’t go down there.” “well which way can I get home then?” (try them out a bit) They’re angry and frightened. “DON’T ARGUE, just move”. they start getting edgy – riot ‘ shields twitch visibly and some move to wards us. “I’m not arguing – I’m asking.- “MOVE” one of them repeats “don’t argue”. – they get closer. we back off quietly up the Hill.

Skirt around Brixton. Back home at Kennington for a coffee and a change of clothes into something inconspicuous and empty all our pockets. We talk about what to do. We want to see Brixton, but we’re also feeling a bit adventurous.

– every copper in South London will be in Brixton now. How about a bit of looting in Camberwell or Kennington? spread the area of revolt – let’s see Brixton first – ok – we take rucksacks anyway, move in cautiously down Coldharbour Lane, corner of Atlantic Road – under the bridge – we stop and gape in wonder. Coldharbour Lane seems to be on fire . Railton Road can’t be seen for smoke fire engines, police cordons, SPG vans, police seem to be calmer here, taking control, not many of them. a familiar face.

“been here long?” “ten minutes. “same.” “seen much?” “I heard a rumour that the old Bill killed someone “Shit!” but then I realise it’s too quiet for that . He pisses off. Old lrish guy starts talking about rebellion. We realise he could go on for hours so we move on – sightseeing. We try to get down towards Railton Road. “You can’t go down there!” we move off politely, more sightseeing – looted shops, broken glass everywhere . Up and down the High Street. big gaps in memory

Brixton Oval – big group of old friends. Fifteen of us suddenly together. “I been here since it started” a friend says grinning from ear to ear. A few stories . Wander down the High street. Wall to wall cops. We scare them a bit . They’ve been trying to stop groups gathering. Fifteen of us amble casually down the street . It looks like something starting. They move us on when we stop, keep us in pairs or threes when we move . Everywhere is smashed. It’s beautiful.

walk up and down sightseeing. gaps in the memory

A guy is pulling a lighter out of a broken jeweller’s window through the grille. I stand between him and the nearest police fifty yards away. He walks off with it casually.

Hanging around near the Lambeth Town Hall. Suddenly blue lights flashing. Blue, blue, flashing lights lights lights lights dozens of them, vans cars, bells, sirens, screaming down the Hill – its on – summat’s up – start walking down the hill – casual like.

Someone yells “the young black coloured kids are here. the coloured kids have arrived.”

No time for questions – walking quickly – black teenagers on the other side of the road start running down the hill – they’re not scared at all – some in the road – some on the pavement.

Some of us start running – big group of black women in front of us – more people in front of them. and blue lights – those blue lights.

Two or three vans stop – they pile out – riot shields. “BACK! BACK!” –they stop us and force us back up the hill – maybe thirty of them. Fifty of us. Pushing and shoving. I stay near the front. Pushing – they get us to the top. Guy next to me says we could turn, take them on, push them back, fight them back. I treat it with the contempt it deserves. Keep moving.

They give one black guy a hard time, he pushes back at the corner, they grab him, women grab him back screaming – a voice shouts Charge! let ’em have it! – they run.

Screams, running boots. I’m well in front so I hang about a second. People run down a dark alley. The cops are running still.

I can see truncheons flying I just fly out up the street no time for bravery.

Suddenly in a strange housing estate, a group of a dozen cops, some in shirt sleeves jog in step like army double time through a courtyard .

Bottom of the hill. fuck where is everyone? must find them.

no sign of anything happening here. cop station quiet . it was probably all a false alarm. I look around – lost. a big cheer. I look up the Hill and a Police Landrover is limping down slowly the back left tyre flapping uselessly about. laughter all round.

Back up to the estate. meet two friends again. the cops are looking for someone in the estate. this is low profile time. let’s re-group, find the others – who got done?

Eventually we gather together a few more. Sightseeing. people going home, cops arriving by the busload. when we leave at midnight the ratio is about one to one and they’re still arriving. everyone goes home.

Back at the flats . two people busted – they ran down the alley – there had been cops at the bottom!! sod’s law – the two who got busted were the one’s with the worst records .

Home to bed. I close my eyes and there are blue flashing lights everywhere.

Next day I expect the afternoon to be quiet so I go out, arrive back in Brixton at six – reach Saint John’s Crescent – they’re stopping people – residents only allowed in. the road block was at Camberwell New Road. I don’t even try to get through . up Saint John’s Crescent down the back streets – literally thousands of cops in buses behind the station. Lots of horses. I walk through them all unhindered and come out about fifty yards past where they had stopped people .

Walk up and down sightseeing – no-one I know is about. look at a few burnt out buildings. Railton Road carpeted with bricks and glass. burnt out cars everywhere. It’s beautiful.

Top of the Hill by the Town Hall. the road’s blocked so everyone hangs about in the middle of the road watching. we get too many for their liking so they charge up the Hill, clear us out of the church yard. a woman had some bricks that she’s throwing on the ground trying to break them . I show her how to break them cleanly in half against the corner of the kerbstone. fighting in Coldharbour Lane – they charge again and clear us off Effra Road. not enough of us.

Black teenage gang. one says ” ok who’s, for the burning and the looting and the pilfering in Streatham? “

Great!

They set off – maybe a dozen. I wait ten minutes, watching the to-ing and fro-ing on the Hill then I follow.

I get to Streatham. nothing. dead. I sit in a doorway and wait half an hour.

Nothing doing. I wander back. get back to the end of Brixton Hill by the road block – another group heading South, maybe twenty this time, black and white, mainly early teens. I tag along.

Three or four police vans pass us and stop a hundred yards ahead. we stop and cross the road. they turn and come back, piling out. we piss off into a housing estate. I find I’m quite good at hurdling fences. wait on the grass in the shadows. More running. three or four of us start going over the chain link fence into the school – about 8 feet high . someone says wait and see if they come around. we drop down and wait. they come around the back. we run. I yell “they’re coming round the back”. everyone gets out into the street. down by the lights outside the pub. people disperse. one guy gets arrested as a few more vans arrive and about a dozen go screaming off towards Streatham. well that’s the end of that idea.

Sit down by the road block. I watch the cops and consider the possibility of a brick through the window of the car in front of me. too many cops. nice idea though. sit for half an hour then back to Brixton. quiet. very quiet. it’s all over.

Walking back down the Hill two black teenagers behind me. one says to his friend “I bet there’s all these coloured Ladies really glad they brought up their kids proper and then a copper knocks on their door and says ‘excuse me have you got a son called Kevin?’ and she says ‘yes’ ‘well he’s in Brixton nick’ “ Laughter. we’re criminals in a way our parents don’t understand. back home.

think about it. “next time- ‘ “next time” “if only…” but whatever else, next time I won’t be so scared.

As well as the usual “wasn’t it great” tales though, it should never be forgotten that some rapists preyed on local women, stand-over merchants armed with knives and machetes robbed & bashed other looters, one nasty gangster after failing to find a safe in the local newsagent in Effra Parade set it on fire and yelled “fuckin’ Pakis”… squatters across the road got inside and helped the family escape with their kids and not much else. As ID was a little easier then some of the more active locals departed to the Continent others who did not alas got busted eg Patrizia Giambi whom the media pilloried as crazed Italian red Brigade organiser manipulating “the Blacks” and she was detained awaiting trial and deportation.

A RIOT A DAY KEEPS THE COPPER AWAY

I hadn’t heard about what happened on Friday night (10.4.81), so when I got down to Railton Road Saturday lunch time, I wondered why there were so many police hanging around. The police later said that they had done a low-key operation that morning, but that was obviously rubbish. There were groups of police every fifty yards and others in cars and vans, so they were out in force and prepared for some kind of action. I was told about the events of Friday night and most people I spoke to felt very nervous about the numbers of police hanging around like gangsters.

When we heard the sirens coming from the bottom of the triangle (the

junction of Mayall Rd and Railton Rd) we walked down to see what would happen. A lot of people were doing the same, mostly out of curiosity. The police later said that the riot was planned because a lot of people were hanging around the area on street corners etc., but that just shows their ignorance. In Brixton there are always people hanging around the streets, especially when it’s sunny, simply because there’s nowhere else to go.

When I got to the bottom of Railton Road I saw a police van and a car with a crowd around, blacks and white. I had no idea what was going on but people were arguing with the police who were quite aggressive. One of the ‘higher officers’ was really nasty; he had taken his ID numbers off his shoulders, and the crowd were pissed off about that. People with cameras were taking photos and police later claimed claimed these ‘white photographers’ were in leading or organising positions but again it’s rubbish. After Friday night people knew something might happen and a number of local people wanted to take photos if anything happened. No one was in a leading position. Finally one copper pushed a black kid hard and that was it. People just threw everything!

That was the spark and for the next six or seven hours we were involved in one of the ‘worst breakdowns of law and order’.

Nothing I can write can describe the exhilaration I felt when that first police van went up in flames. From that spark it spread up and down Brixton. For so long the police had an arrogant air of invincibility, as if they could do anything they liked and get away with it. But that burning police van and retreating cops did more to boost our confidence than anything else.

Most people grouped around the middle of Railton Rd. The police had moved up to Mayall Rd up as far as Leeson Rd and many of us were stoning them to get them to retreat, but they made a wall of riot shields. It was totally spontaneous., no one told us to attack here or there, we saw for ourselves and if we felt the need to fight here and there we did so. The crowd kept a constant barrage of bricks and bottles but the police wouldn’t move. People called for petrol bombs but none had been prepared. Police talk about bomb-factories is the result of their own inability to understand how a riot works, they cannot understand how a non-hierarchical system works.

It didn’t take long for the petrol bombs to appear… all it takes is some petrol a bottle and a bit of paper or rag, it doesn’t need any experience or brains.

It’s just another sample of the racism of the state to say that black people need white experts to make petrol bombs. We were using any bottles we could find (black polythene rubbish bags were ripped open to get bottles); there were enough cars around to siphon off all the petrol. The first bombs were used at Leeson Rd and the crowd cheered their appearance. I never knew how easy it was to turn over cars, they go over so easy; the symbols of consumerism only need a couple of people to go over and they burn so well! It was like being high, we felt so powerful for the first time ever.

The police retreated to cheers and a rain of missiles. People started smashing the windows of the pub and others went in and began breaking everything, pulling out drinks for all of us! I’ve lived in Brixton most of my life and I never saw anything like it before. Blacks and whites, rastas and punks, men and women, young and old, gays and hets. Unity just isn’t a strong enough word as we shared drinks and cigarettes, everyone patting each other on the back smiling. It was like a street party, with no tension between us at all. Words just can’t express that feeling, and in the distance the lines of police watched.

At about this time the looting started, the police just fell back and no one was really trying to move forward. There was a lull in the fighting, and behind our barricades was a free area, no leaders and no authority. The second pub was smashed up and burned, and then the plumbers (who really disliked the people in the area) and soon every shop was open target. For the first time ever people took what they wanted without having to work like slaves to get the cash or beg from the state. When the sweetshop was gotten into, those who got inside were throwing things to those on the outside! A lot of the negative things happened at about this time, but that was because we had ceased to be on the offensive and people had started to get drunk. Also it was a good chance for people to get what they wanted for themselves and forget about the rest. Most of these anti-social acts were on the periphery; next time we should be ready to deal with these sorts of acts as a collective mass as we did with the fighting. On the whole people acted together; before any buildings went up in flames, some of the crowd made sure that no one was inside. If you believe the media the rioters didn’t care. Someone suggested putting a brick through the anarchist bookshop window; the rest of the crowd said no (and not just the anarchists either).

Gradually the police began moving forward again and we fought hard but a lot of us were getting really tired. It was dark and people were drifting away, buildings collapsing around us. Its how I’d always imagined the blitz. The police were moving closer yards at a time, they were armed with pick axe handles and base ball bats, they kept banging their sticks on the floor to raise the tension, they had their war cries and chants prepared (all the best psychological warfare techniques learned at school).When they charged they were like animals grabbing hold of anyone and beating shit out of them. The police violence was more vicious and painful than any of ours.

On escaping from the immediate area I was surprised to see how far it had spread. The people in the main riot had very little idea of what was happening outside their immediate area; lack of communication is one fault we mustn’t make again. The people I spoke to wanted to join in but were cut off from the Railton Riot, but everyone was glad the police had received a beating even if only temporarily. Brixton was practically under siege, police were everywhere and sporadic fighting was taking place – The police station was ringed and they obviously felt vulnerable because they knew it would be our next target. The police couldn’t let it go because it served as their communications centre and because it’s their symbol of power over us.

The area had been cut off, trains and buses stopped so that reinforcements for us couldn’t get there. Fires had been started and some of the main department stores looted! The police tactic of isolating the riot only in the Frontline had failed partially at least.

COPS, DAMN COPS, AND STATISTICS

7.472 police officers were used to police the area, some on more than one occasion.

285 arrests

415 police officers and 172 members of the public injured

118 police vehicles damaged

4 police vehicles destroyed

61 private vehicles damaged

30 private vehicles destroyed

158 premises damaged

28 premises seriously damaged by fire

– Met Report on the Riot

The first state/media reaction-to say the riot was a race riot-failed miserably. It was so obvious that the riot was anti-police and anti-authoritarian; when a priest asked for our demands the crowd asked that the police fuck off and all prisoners released. But even these were not true demands because a demand requires some level of negotiation which none of the rioters were willing to engage in.

From the very beginning the police had said that the riot was pre-planned but their theory is easily demolished. Firstly they say there were a lot of people on the streets but what do you expect on a sunny Saturday. Secondly they say white photographers were in leading positions but those white photographers were mostly residents and in no way leaders or organisers. Thirdly the police say petrol bombs had been prepared but you need no skill to make them and it doesn’t take long either. And lastly they say ‘white anarchists’ were in the crowd, but those white anarchists are part of the community, we all live and some of us work in the area. I’ve lived in Brixton most of my life.

When the race riot tactic failed the police fell onto the theory of white anarchists organising the riot. The state cannot admit that people are sick and tired of the system and that they are capable of rising spontaneously and successfully attacking the state and its representatives. The main lesson of Brixton is that it can happen anywhere without the need of leaders or organisers. Therefore the state must find scapegoats and invent leaders where none exist. Anarchists are that scapegoat and the police decided we are all terrorists and plotters. The reasons we are chosen must he because we made no secret of our wish for another Bristol and we are known to be active in the community and easily identified as well as the only politicos active in the riots.

The state media brought on ‘international terrorists’ as stage props in a well-orchestrated bid to use us to explain away the hatred people feel for the system. For a start this is inherently racist, the refusal to accept that black people can act without white leaders. Secondly it gives the state special branch a chance to get back at troublesome anarchists.

When the raid on the flat in Coldharbour Lane happened it had the effect of frightening us, as far as we knew it could be the start of an anti-anarchist pogrom. Thought of Persons Unknown* etc. ran through my mind and it made us all a lot more tense (which may be the whole point anyway). It’s certainly not over yet; the press has caught on to the name ‘anarchist’ with parasitical glee and are harping on about international links (making us out to be in touch with the spirit of Ulrike Meinhof practically).

After the riots, community leaders descended on Brixton like flies (the press haven’t attacked them as outside agitators, because they serve the very useful task of pacifying us). These self-appointed leaders have been loudly apologising for the riot blaming bad housing and unemployment, asking for more cash etc. But there can be no apologies for the riot, none. Unemployment and bad housing are contributory factors but discontent goes much deeper than that. The riot can only be interpreted as the free expression of anger and disgust at the whole farce. During the riot there were no demands for jobs, we wanted everything then and there. It was a rejection of the system of which bad housing and unemployment are parts.

The left have been attempting to colonise Brixton for a long time; practically every Left group is active in the area in some way or another. Their calls for revolution and action have been shown to be nothing but hot air. During the riot the Leftists were nowhere to be seen; they had disappeared as soon as the action began. They returned only when the police had cleared the streets. Now every sect is claiming the riot as a victory but still making the usual pathetic apologies. They too blame unemployment, bad housing and racism. But if racism is to blame why did the rioters attack pubs etc? Racism is a factor but not the whole story. The left are no no doubt electing themselves onto committees and looking for recruits, but I wonder how effective they will be. The people in the area generally treat them with the contempt they deserve.

As anarchists we must learn from the riots and be prepared for the next, also we must not apologise for the riots. This is probably the first riot of its kind in this country where a large number of anarchists were involved. It’s a danger and a mistake to claim the riots as anarchist, in the same way the leftists claim it for themselves. Nevertheless the riot was anti-authoritarian in character and spontaneous; those of us involved felt the thrill of liberation even if only for a few hours and we also saw that the state is not invulnerable.

The struggle was limited in that we stayed in one area (the main riot in Railton Road); this was due to a reluctance to give up territory already won, though there was much talk of attacking the police station. If we had had more reinforcements it might have been possible. The police did their best to hem us in and to a certain extent their presence succeeded in discouraging any more advance. The next time we should make concerted attempts to a advance; the only way to do this is by our own example. I’m sure that if we had managed to get into other areas people would have joined us.

Better communication would also be a step forward; those of us in Railton Road had very little idea of what was happening in the rest of Brixton and vice versa. A press black-out would also be a possibility next time so a feasible communication system as in Europe is a must if such riots are to spread. The majority of police in London were probably in Brixton on Saturday night, so actions in other parts of the city would have been appropriate.

Even during the riot some priests and social workers made attempts to mediate but we did not want any negotiations. as soon as negotiation begin the battle is lost. All attempts at negotiation should be resisted vigorously. If we want prisoners released we shouldn’t beg for them but either get them ourselves (anti-snatch squads?) or capture prisoners ourselves if possible.

As anarchists we do not need to beg the state for crumbs but take what is rightfully ours. The policy of direct action was put into practice on Saturday 11th April, and it was a celebration of our power over our own lives. Next time we should use the experience of Brixton ’81 in an attempt to further the struggle, to spread the action to new areas, to adapt new tactics and still keep our aims in mind.

All this was written as a purely personal response to the Brixton Riots, events which have not yet finished and will no doubt be talked about for a long time. This article only represents the beginning, we are all still learning from the experience.

1.The attitude of the left press has shown only a slight difference to that of the state press. They have gone overboard in apologising and excusing our actions whilst presenting a package deal of community leaders with answers to the ‘problems’ in the way of begging the government for money. They have gone ahead and printed photographs of rioters engaged in action which the police can use for identification and victimisation (it is said police are using these photos as evidence already). Yet there are no such photos of police attacking us.

2.The police were obviously ready for something on Saturday; their numbers suggest this, some had taken off their I.D. numbers in readiness. But they were not prepared for the militancy and size of our attack. Rumours about the army were going round on Saturday night, but we can be certain that the army were made ready and trucks were seen in Kennington ready to reach Brixton. It is also said that the SAS were prepared to move into the area at the first sign of guns from the rioters. We also know that a navy liaison officer was called into Brixton police station with a quantity of CS gas. Rumours among the police were that two of their number had been burnt to death, this was guaranteed to cause greater tension on their side.

  1. What is surprising is that in the circumstances no one spoke about Belfast, and only Bristol was mentioned. The riots are presented as purely due to local conditions and circumstances but it is truer to say that the same conditions exist in other places, all over Britain and beyond. The hatred most people feel exists from Belfast to Berlin, anywhere where authority shows itself. It is very important that we stress this fact and the belief in our power as individuals to confront the system is applicable everywhere. People are saying ‘where next’, anarchists should be saying and hoping ‘here next’.

4.Unity and co-operation were unspoken principles; everyone helped build barricades, no one was ordered to help. No one was pressured into fighting or looting. Middle-aged white women celebrated beside teenage rastas and white punks (this is a feature which was reported in other riots but which I never quite accepted until I saw it for myself). Whenever people felt that more ammunition was needed, groups of people would collect bottled or crates full of bricks for everyone to use.

  1. The reformist Left have always stated that rebellion cannot happen, that people do not need to resort to violence. The fallacy of that argument is obvious to most people. On the other hand the argument of the so-called ‘revolutionary’ left that action is not possible unless led by the vanguard party is not so easy to discredit. But the events of Brixton as well as Bristol and across Europe “prove that” the only successful riots are not led and that leftists and their vanguard parties play no part at all. No doubt while we fought in Railton Road, the left were selling their papers or attending meeting meetings or conferences.

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Other accounts of the 1981 riots are available… Undoubtedly the above is coloured by the anarchist ideas of those who contributed –

The original edition of ‘We Want to Riot Not to Work’ contained much more on the post-riot aftermath, arrests, the campaign to defend those nicked, and the reaction of the left… As well as much class analysis of the wider context. We haven’t room to print it all here.

Past Tense republished much of this in a pamphlet reprint of ‘We Want to Riot Not to Work’, in 2013, which is itself now out of print again, though we are working on reprinting this.

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Past Tense has written quite a bit about Brixton (and reprinted/posted stuff written by friends and other earlier residents), relating to policing, riots, black radical politics, racism, squatting, gentrification, and much more… Because most of us lived there, through events, took part in struggles and daily life there, and think about it all. More to come – there’s lots to say – though it’s only part of what we are interested in, its an area that has helped shape us and still makes us think.

It isn’t to claim uniqueness for the area (though that is true!) – whatever ends you’re from, the tale needs telling.

Published in pamphlet form so far:

• In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist policing, Resistance, and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

• Black Women Organising: The Brixton Black women’s Group & the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

We Want To Riot, Not to Work: The1981 Brixton Riots.
(Reprint of 1982 classic our mates put out: Currently out of print again, but plans are afoot…)

Through A Riot Shield: The 1985 Brixton Riot
(More incendiary stuff reprinted from Crowbar…)

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online here

and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

It is our intention eventually to publish history and thoughts on: Brixton’s early history, the growth of working class and migrant communities, the birth of council housing and squatting, Brixton women’s scenes and gay scenes, music and streetlife, further riots, race relations, the council and the left, the poll tax, and more on social change, development and gentrification. Because we are self-funded, have families and need to survive in the morass of wage labour, and also because we have a million projects on the go, we have no idea when any of this will appear. Lots of it is also talked about elsewhere… other people are writing about it and posting up pictures etc.

Today in London squatting history, 1969: Brixton’s first squatters? Empty offices occupied.

Brixton, South London: for many years one of the heaviest squatted areas of the capital. Occupying empty buildings and making use of them was for several decades an integral part of life in this area, not only housing hundreds of thousands, but giving home to hundreds of alternative projects and spaces – from bookshops, cafes, workshops, meeting places, to gig venues, art galleries… the list is endless.

The first record of squatting we are aware of if from March 1969; only a few months after the first actions of what is generally thought of as the squatting movement.

‘Squatters seized an empty five-storey office block in London’s Brixton Road on Saturday, 29 March. About a dozen squad cars, black marias and motor cycle police surrounded the building just before 9 a.m.) minutes after the “invasion squad” otherwise known as the South London Squatters, had got in through a back way.

A detachment of police headed by an inspector from the nearby Brixton police station and a plain-clothes man clambered over a ten-–foot hardboard fence at the back of the concrete and glass building and tried to get the squatters to leave quietly. They refused. A few minutes later large banners appeared over the balconies of the block reading: ‘Homes not offices’ and ‘Enough room here for eighty families’. Plus a red flag.

The building is next to Brixton Register Office. Astonished wedding guests watched as police tried to get the squatters out. According to a leaflet handed out by supporters outside, the building – 40,500 sq. ft of it – has been empty for three years. ‘Why can’t Cathy come home to this’!’ the leaflet asks. ‘We have occupied this building to expose the housing shortage. A building this size could be converted at only £1,000 a unit to house eighty homeless families. Eight million sq. ft of office building stands empty in London alone – enough to house all the homeless in Britain.’

The operation, the first carried out by the group, was surprisingly simple. The glass in a door at the back of the building was cut and Hey Presto! The next they heard were the sirens.

Said Ray Gibbon, travel agency manager and father of two, of Shakespeare Road, Heme Hill, “We intend staying here until 5.30. Then we’ll leave quietly after we’ve made our point.”

The squatters, all local people, passed their time listening to the radio, playing football and putting records on a record player they’d brought with them. At lunch-time fish and chips and bottles of beer were hoisted up by rope from outside. Rubbish was put in a Lambeth Council paper sack they had brought in with them. ‘We want to be as tidy as possible,’ said Mr Gibbon.

During the day, the squatters gave out over 7,000 leaflets in the Brixton shopping centre. One West Indian bus conductor said, ‘Give me a heap man. I’ll give them out to the lads when I get to the garage at Croydon.’ The leaflet said: ‘Some people try to blame immigrants for the housing shortage but we know we had lousy houses in Britain before we ever saw a black face or heard an Irish accent. The real for the housing shortage is that a small group of people make millions of pounds out of our need for a decent home.’

Source: radical newspaper Black Dwarf 1969: Republished in David Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (London: Penguin, 1976) David has this down as 1968, but this we think is wrong, as Saturday 29th March was a Saturday in ’69, not ’68, and the squatting movement had not got going in March 1968 to the point described in the article above. However, if we are totally wrong on this please let us know. 

From these beginnings grew a massive scene, or myriad scenes rather.

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A SHORT HISTORY OF SQUATTING’S EARLY YEARS IN BRIXTON

Brixton became a centre of squatting for a number of reasons.

A century and a half of social change had transformed a once prosperous suburb into a mainly working class area. Much of the old Victorian housing had been sub-divided and multiply occupied, and was in a state of disrepair and over crowding.

The Borough was faced with a rising level of homelessness: a survey in 1967 reckoned that much of the housing in the area had less than ten years life left in it, and that to house the 14,000 homeless households, and cope with those who would likely be made homeless as these homes became unusable, the Council would have to build or refurbish 4000 houses a year for the next seven years. This didn’t even take account of those on the Waiting List. Given the then shortage of building workers this target was unlikely at best. But pressure was put on the Planning Dept to come up with a solution.

Lambeth Director of Planning, Ted Hollamby, had won a reputation for small-scale housing developments that blended with their surroundings, and came from a radical background, living as he did in a ‘progressive’ architectural commune in William Morris’s old Red House in Bexleyheath! While previously working for the London County Council, he had attempted to save old buildings from demolition. He seems to have been a somewhat contradictory character, or had a change of heart. Under Hollamby’s leadership (it was said of him at the time that “The planning process is highly centralised, taking place as it does entirely within [his] head.”) the Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, and part of Coldharbour Lane turned into an urban motorway. (Interestingly that’s why Southwyck House, known universally locally as the Barrier Block, is built like a huge wall with relatively few windows in the side facing Coldharbour Lane: to cushion the noise from this (subsequently never built) motorway. Not just to make its residents feel imprisoned – although for years rumours have asserted the Block’s design to be modeled on a plan for a Swedish Prison. When it opened, after ten years in the building, huge problems with different contractors, it was declared unfit for families to live in. (It was gleefully pointed out in 1995, when then Prime Monster John Major described council estates as ‘grey, sullen wastelands, robbing people of self-respect’ that ex-Lambeth Housing Chair Major had been on the planning committee that had approved the Barrier Block!)

The plan was openly to re-engineer the area’s social mix, bringing middle class ‘urban professionals’ into the area, and (less openly) to disperse black people and other undesirables from Central Brixton. The 1971 opening of Brixton tube station was seen as the first step in “an attempt to upgrade the area on a very large scale.” Plans for a new office blocks, new schools, and new housing estates were scheduled; they would entirely replace the majority of the crumbling Victorian houses in Central Brixton. Some of the planned estates was to be low-rise, high density, but the centre piece featured Brixton Towers, five 52 storey tower blocks, the highest housing scheme outside Chicago, 600 feet high. A new park would serve the proposed 6000 new residents… In effect the plan would have restricted traffic to a few major trunk roads, encircling islands of high density housing with limited access. Such schemes carried out elsewhere quickly decayed into ghettos, cut off by perimeter roads; in fact the first new estate to be built, Stockwell Park, although low-rise, turned into a nightmare for many. Its purpose-built garages were not used for years, damp and disrepair set in and it rapidly began to be used as a dumping ground for supposed ‘problem tenants’.

Few of Lambeth’s 300,000 population knew much about this plan. But pretty soon, the effects of the processes set in motion under the plan began to bite. Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed. And as part of the proposals a huge central shopping centre was to extend from Coldharbour Lane out as far as Kellett Road (this would have been built by Ravenseft, responsible for the Elephant & Castle folly). And so a huge area of Railton Road and Mayall Road was CPO’d.

All over the Borough CPOs were imposed, and indeed resisted by many local groups that sprang up to try and inject some sense into the plans. Blight and decline tend to become a vicious circle, especially in housing. They pointed out that many of the houses marked for demolition were not run down, and had plenty of life in them, that there’d be no Housing Gain (a bureaucratic term for how many more people would be housed after redevelopment than before), and that complex existing communities would be destroyed. The active opposition to Compulsory Purchase and demolition often came from owner-occupiers, who supposedly had ‘a greater stake’ in the houses, although in most CPO areas tenants outnumbered them 2 to 1… But most campaigns were aware of the danger of becoming just a middle class pressure group and attempted to involve tenants as well. Planning processes ignored tenants: only the objections of owner-occupiers or those who paid rent less often than once a month were allowed in any Planning Inquiries. But alternative plans were drawn up to include tenants co-operatives/take-over by Housing Associations as well as owner-occupancy instead of destruction. The Council of course, feeling as ever that it knew best, tended to treat residents objections and proposals with contempt or indifference. Its policy was to split tenants from owner-occupiers in these groups, presenting the owners as fighting only for their own interests, and offering tenants a rosy future in the new estates… they also, as you’d expect, tried to keep these groups and others in the dark about planning decisions. Where the Council owned or acquired houses, the inhabitants, many in sub-divided multi-occupancy, were promised rehousing (eventually, for some); but imminent demolition meant Lambeth spent little effort following up needed repairs and maintenance, tenants became frustrated and pushed for immediate rehousing.

Lambeth’s planning dream however, quickly turned into a nightmare, with a tighter economic climate and the end of the speculative building boom of the 60s. Much of the Brixton Plan was being cut back: the government refused to fund the Town Centre Development in 1968, as it would have taken up 10% of the total town centre development fund for the UK! The five huge towers, the six-lane dual carriageway, the vast concrete shopping centre and the urban motorway never materialised, and companies involved ran out of cash and ran to the Council for more (eg Tarmac re the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this was never met.

By the early 1970s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

Homelessness was on the rise. Rising property prices had led many landlords to evict tenants to sell off houses. There were also an increasing number of empty houses (officially in 1971, 5225, two and a half times the 1961 figure), many of which were occupiable and not scheduled for immediate demolition, as it could take as long as 7 years from CPO to redevelopment.

Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, looking for places to live and finding a rich seam in SW2 – this contributed to an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough.

Incidentally planner Ted Hollamby’s trajectory lurched further from consultative architecture – after leaving Lambeth Council’s employ in 1981, he went to work for the London Docklands Development Corporation, helping to ‘regenerate’ London’s docks in the interest of big business in the face of protests from most of the local population.

In 1969-70 the Lambeth Family Squatting Group occupied homes for mainly local families; they considered themselves the official squatting movement, and had many negotiations with Lambeth Council.

By 1970, the Borough Council had made an accommodation with the Family Squatting Group to licence families to stay in occupied houses. This was very much in the spirit of the times, as pressure and media attention drew public support for squatting in empty property. However, licensed squatters were soon outnumbered by unlicensed ones, mainly single people, who the Family Squatting Associations wouldn’t house, although there was also a rise people who were squatting politically, occupying empties as shared houses or communes as a challenge to property rights and conventional ways of living, This neither the original squatting groups or the Council liked at all. Lambeth’s ‘official’ squatting group became Lambeth Self-Help Housing Co-op in 1971, the Council handed over 110 houses to them to administer (172 by 1974); in this way, Lambeth, like other authorities, was partly recognizing they could do little to stop squatting and might as well have it under some form of loose control, as it could take the houses back when it could afford to do something with them. Much divisions arose from the licensing of some squats; Councils slyly pitted co-ops against squatters and tried to drive wedges between them. It’s true that while co-ops saved many people from eviction, they also acted in many cases to pressurize people to leave houses when the Councils demanded them back, and helped to regulate squatters, tone down organized resistance and shovel people into paying rent for substandard houses. There was also a lot of double dealing; squatters would be offered rehousing on the day of eviction, and as the Council trashed the house around them they would be moved to a hard to let property, often unfit to live in. in some cases this house would be taken back very quickly too – in at least some cases the day after they were moved in!

In the mid-70s, Lambeth was widely held to be the most squatted borough in London. The upsurge created whole squatted communities and experiments: Villa Road, the Railton Road/Mayall Road in Central Brixton (known as the frontline); St Agnes Place and Oval Mansions in Kennington; Bonnington Square/Vauxhall Grove, Radnor Terrace/Rosetta Street/Wilcox Road, and Mawbey St/Brough St in Vauxhall; Heath Road/Robertson St, St Alphonsus Road and Rectory Gardens in Clapham, and Hubert Grove, off Landor Road; Priory Grove in Stockwell, and more. Later on there was Lingham Road, Stockwell, the Triangle in Norwood (Berridge rd, Bristow Rd), Effra Parade, St George’s Mansions and Loughborough Park, Stockwell Mansions…

Most of these arose in streets which had been part of Compulsory Purchase Schemes, then left largely or wholly empty by planning blight. Some remained squatted (or intermittently licenced) for nearly 30 years, some became co-ops in the 70s and 80s, some gradually were evicted. Some squatters formed action groups to try and preserve their houses, of these, as with the famous struggle at Villa Road, some partially succeeded and became co-ops, while others like St Agnes Place prevented their destruction but made no long-term deals with the Council. While many of the squatters were content to house themselves and live a quiet life, the growth of squatting as a whole bolstered a large and diverse radical scene in Brixton. Many of the squatters were alternative types, socialists, feminists, anarchists, bohemians or artists of one stripe or another, or lesbians and gay men trying to create new ways of living outside the traditional family set up… Many others wanted little more than somewhere affordable to live. But many communes, radical experiments in alternative ways of life to the traditional nuclear family, were also set up… These widely varying reasons for squatting led to disputes and splits, as some of the more ‘political’ squatters took a more confrontational line while others pursued licences and formed co-ops. In many cases though, a dual approach saved people’s houses, as with Villa Road.

Gradually many local black youth began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, their squatted HQ in Vining Street was attacked by racists in August 1983 (they later moved to Kellett Road).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were often fractious (see report on the 1982 frontline riot, below). Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.” Although this statement ignores many exceptions, and “indigenous population” is an unlikely term where London is concerned, there is an element of truth to this statement. Many white squatters WERE “outsiders”, and did often have little commitment to stay in an area, which they weren’t originally from. But a huge chunk of London’s population has for centuries been from elsewhere, transient, moving (often forced to move) from one area of town to another. Squatters in many cases would settle down if they could – it’s the landlords, council, cops and courts that drive them out.

Black squatters of course received their unfair share of agro from the local state and the bizzies. And the press, always up for a story about noisy blacks, spread tales of black squatters terrorising their neighbours.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people – the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda. In response to Council tirades on squatting, squatters’ propaganda focused on Lambeth’s part in homelessness, what with the CPOs, refusal to renovate empties, insistence on buying houses with vacant possession, its habit of forgetting houses, taking back ones it had licenced out. They pointed out that many of the squatters would have been in Bed & Breakfast or temporary accommodation if they weren’t squatting – many in fact HAD been for months (in some cases years) before losing patience and squatting.

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness.

Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In autumn 1974 All Lambeth Squatters formed, a militant body representing many of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

Most of the impetus for All-Lambeth Squatters came from two main squatting groups – one in and around Villa Road, the other at St Agnes Place in Kennington Park.

In parallel many tenants and other residents were organizing in community campaigns around housing, like the St Johns Street Group around St John’s Crescent and Villa Road… Direct action against the Council by groups like this led to tenants being moved out, the resulting empties being either trashed, to make them unusable, squatted, or licensed to shortlife housing groups like Lambeth Self-Help. Tenants groups in some cases co-operated with squatters occupying empties in streets being run down or facing decline.

Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing, like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys like more gutting of empties. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within Norwood Labour Party (stronghold of the ‘New Left’) and from homeless people and squatters.

The Gutting and smashing up of houses was an integral part of this strategy: houses when evicted were to be rendered totally unliveable in. In some cases this got highly dangerous: houses in Wiltshire Road were wrecked with an old woman still living in the basement, while people were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in the Housing Dept thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

There was resistance to the evictions/destruction. In November 1976, a crowd of squatters barricaded Vining Street off Railton Road, jeering off bailiffs and workmen, to prevent their homes being smashed up – much of Rushcroft Road and Vining Street was already semi-derelict from neglect. The Council had already admitted that evicted houses would lie empty for two years and more.

However Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were to be the main testing grounds for this new policy.

In Villa Road, empties had been gradually squatted 1973-76. In response to tenants campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Rd, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor terrace the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy. Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…

Meanwhile some Possession Orders in Villa Road were thrown out in court. Negotiations opened up with the council, and after much trench warfare and court wrangling, half of Villa Road was saved as part of Lambeth Self Help, in return for the demolition of the southern half, with rehousing for most of the residents.

(Some of those rehoused were moved to Rushcroft Road, to face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth and London & Quadrant Housing Association… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers. Those moved on including your past tense typist here. Many of these flats were in turn re-squatted after L&Q evictions, when the council did nothing with the flats, and many of this new generation were only kicked out themselves in 2013…)

In St Agnes Place, Kennington, squatters first moved into empty houses in 1974 – some of the buildings had been unoccupied for 14 years. By December 1976 over 100 people were squatting there. In January 1977 over 250 police had arrived at dawn to preside over the demolition of empty houses although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters. The street would survive until a mass eviction in 2005, though many changes of personnel had been gone though by then.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft one of the major backers of the Plan, had pulled out the previous summer. The planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969. By the time the High Court hearing on Villa Road resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise with squatters at Villa Rd and elsewhere… St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road…

In May 1978, a new left-Labour Council was elected with the trotskyist Ted Knight, and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chair respectively. The left had been fighting to try and take over from the old rightwing Labour guard for years. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Interestingly though, watered down versions of parts of the Plan were still surfacing in the 80s. In 1983, planning officers were proposing radical alterations to the lands cape, including demolishing many houses behind the west side of Brixton Road, to build shops and offices, and rerouting Coldharbour Lane through Rushcroft Road and Carlton Mansions (handily this would have got rid of hundreds of squatters and co-op dwellers living there). Central Brixton was once again being envisioned as hosting a grandiose block of flats on top of a car park and new shops. Opposition was rallied by housing co-ops and others, through the Brixton Action Group, who described the planners as “an elusive lot who lurk in Streatham making recommendations about land use and building design which we experience years later when we are told that although our houses are viable and necessary the council regrets that the land has been zoned for office development…” Fortunately amendments were made to the plans, which took objections into account, and ended up substantially humanised.

And the 1980s would see a whole new squatting revival in Brixton…

There’s so much more to be written about on squatting in Brixton… As and when, folks, as and when.

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An entry in the
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Past Tense has written quite a bit about Brixton (and reprinted/posted stuff written by friends and other earlier residents), relating to policing, riots, black radical politics, racism, squatting, gentrification, and much more… Because most of us lived there, through events, took part in struggles and daily life there, and think about it all. More to come – there’s lots to say – though it’s only part of what we are interested in, its an area that has helped shape us and still makes us think.

It isn’t to claim uniqueness for the area (though that is true!) – whatever ends you’re from, the tale needs telling.

Published in pamphlet form so far:

• In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist policing, Resistance, and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

• Black Women Organising: The Brixton Black women’s Group & the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

We Want To Riot, Not to Work: The1981 Brixton Riots.
(Reprint of 1982 classic our mates put out: Currently out of print again, but plans are afoot…)

Through A Riot Shield: The 1985 Brixton Riot
(More incendiary stuff reprinted from Crowbar…)

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online at:

http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past-tense-publications.html
and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

It is our intention eventually to publish history and thoughts on: Brixton’s early history, the growth of working class and migrant communities, the birth of council housing and squatting, Brixton women’s scenes and gay scenes, music and streetlife, further riots, race relations, the council and the left, the poll tax, and more on social change, development and gentrification. Because we are self-funded, have families and need to survive in the morass of wage labour, and also because we have a million projects on the go, we have no idea when any of this will appear. Lots of it is also talked about elsewhere… other people are writing about it and posting up pictures etc.

Today in London squatting history, 1984: the eviction of Effra Parade, Brixton.

In March 1984, Lambeth Council sent in 200 cops to evict seven squatted terraced houses in Effra Parade, off Railton Road, Brixton – houses which they planned to demolish. The squatters had been campaigning against the impending eviction, and planned to resist…

HISTORY OF EFFRA PARADE

The houses in Effra Parade were squatted in 1977 towards the end of the big wave of squatting in the ’70s. After the battle of Villa Road, Lambeth Council had toned down its anti-squat policies and many squats became housing Co-ops and got their licenses. The Effra Parade workers cottages were squatted as soon as they became empty. They became empty because the Council had decided they were unfit, and bought them under a Compulsory Purchase Order. Only 7 of the 9 cottages were squatted, 2 of them the Council re-let to tenants who occupied them for the next 5 years. The other 7 remained squats until 25th March 1984.

Effra Parade area lies just South of the Front Line; it was a heavily squatted place, sandwiched between on the North Brixton shopping centre and the Front line, and the mostly white, middle class Herne Hill & Dulwich to the South. The people there were mostly poor, from every country, extraction and background.

THE GOLDEN DAYS

Various generations of squatters inhabited the buildings. No Council repairs were done, yet they remained inhabited, the main problems were that some places had outside toilets and leaky roofs which the squatters repaired themselves. ln 1982 & 1983 the back gardens were cultivated, some of the fences removed to make bigger open areas. The squatters were happy.

BRIXTON RIOTS

However things changed rapidly in Brixton. Several people from Effra Parade were charged after the 1981 riots. Police and Drug raids followed. During the riot, the George – a racist pub on the corner – was burned down along with the Post Office & a Newsagent opposite. After the riots the Authorities responded by saturating the area with Police, Social Workers, etc and demolished completely half of Railton & Mayall Roads, the shops, the clubs, the houses…

FRONTLINE EVICTED

The Squatted Georges Residences (20 flats, saved from demolition by its squatters), behind Effra Parade survived and became a Co-op. More Black Clubs sprang up around the Frontline on the corner of Dexter Road. These were evicted and demolished for an ‘open space’ in November ’82, leading to a riot. In return a pre-fabricated ‘Afro-Carribean Centre’ was stuck up at the bottom of Railton Road and the Adventure Playground was demolished in favour of a basketball court and still play objects. Railton Road changed, but the squatters in Effra Parade still stood.

121 THREATENED

The anarchist Bookshop across the Road with its meetings and meals had by 1982 become known as a squatting self-help centre. The Labour Party responded by trying to evict the Bookshop in 1983 (upon the Personal Orders of Council leader ‘Red’ Ted Knight) but soon realised they had ‘Stirred up a hornets nest’, and fearing the worst, they dropped the eviction case.

SAVE OUR HOMES

As a second choice they decided to evict Effra Parade. Since it was CPO’d 5 Years before they appeared to have a perfect case.

The Council’s demolition date was set for Xmas 1983, but some of the squatters began writing up graffiti and made a leaflet – Save Our Homes – calling people to resist the demolition. Squatters and other locals responded. Work parties cleaned up the gardens, patched roofs etc

Lambeth Council responded with a clever move – they offered re-housing. They had no obligation to house single people at all and such an offer could not be treated lightly. 4 houses were eventually to give in and accepted the offer – while still protesting that the houses need not be abolished.

Effra Parade was split, but as soon as a place became empty, new squatters, and even ex-squatters who loved their former homes, moved in and barricaded the houses. The 3 groups which had refused to be re-housed had already barricaded up their homes. More leaflets, stickers, posters were prepared (though the Press refused to mention the fight throughout, despite many efforts). The Council’s meetings were picketed and Councillors lobbied. Several months before some of the Squatters had joined Livin’ Bricks, a local Co-op, architects had come in and examined the houses and proved them sound.

DESPERATION

By January it became clear that persuasion would not work. The destruction of Effra Parade had become a vendetta to eradicate what the Council saw as a ‘nesting ground’ of anarchist squatters. Our response was to go for a campaign of public support – surely the threat of (another) Railton Rd riot would make them think twice? A protest march was called and about 30 people marched all over Brixton through the markets etc giving away leaflets and making noise. Another march was called. Pickets went to the homes of Hazel Smith (Housing Chair) and Ted Knight. Time was running out. A new lot of graffiti went up all over the place. The last thing holding up the eviction was that in no. 105 there was still the family of legal tenants. They were given a house and told to move out quickly. The Council was desperate to get under way! Before the Spring arrived and the street life on the Front Line got busy. Underneath the media blanket extensive and urgent preparations were being made.

1ST ALARM

On Thursday 21st March the Alarm was given, the date had been given by the Boarding up teams who had tried (and been chased off) to board up No 93 some weeks earlier. About 70 squatters turned out from the Alarm Network early in the day but the evictors did not show up, a meeting was held & it was decided to hold a jumble sale & street party on the Saturday afternoon. Many people volunteered to help barricade houses.

SATURDAY 23RD MARCH

Unfortunately a day of continuous heavy rain & icy winds. The jumble sale had to be moved over to 121 Bookshop, it was very successful. During the proceedings a rumour arrived (from where we cannot say – but a million thanks!) that the eviction was set for 4.00am on Monday morning. The tip-off could not be proven completely, but a meeting decided to call a General Alarm, to hold a meeting at midnight the following day, and an all night party in Effra Parade up until the end.

THE EVICTION

SUNDAY 24TH MARCH: FREE EFFRA AREA

The Effra Parade Alarm List went into action, and squatters from all over began turning up, joining in the barricading etc. As evening fell three Anarchist flags went up over the roofs, as well as a dummy in a gas mask. More banners appeared on the neighbouring buildings & squats. Barricading was elaborate. Some front doors had been closed off completely and most of the homes had holes knocked through to each other – escape holes – but there was no escape, as, the whole terrace could easily be surrounded & cut off. All windows had been sealed up with wire, bars, boards, Akros, corrugated iron, bed-springs etc. Volunteers were already up on the roofs, gathering bricks and bottles and setting up… hooters, sirens, bells etc. At midnight the meeting was packed out, first we discussed what to do when arrested, then 25 people volunteered to stay in the houses and fight. The rest would try and hold them off in the street. The party began, with the big amp blasting reggae music into the night. Since early evening chairs had been set in the street to prevent parking and neighbours had been told door to door (most by this stage were openly sympathetic, though Lambeth Council had delivered leaflets pleading their case). Volunteer patrols began their shifts and watched the local area. Beer, soup and sandwiches were distributed. Effra Parade was full of people, blocking the street. But the only indication of trouble was the fact that the police were nowhere to be seen. It was quiet…too quiet… For one night Effra Parade was ours: ‘Free Effra Area’ – the new graffiti proclaimed.

MONDAY 25TH MARCH 1984

2.30am: 2 police buses were spotted driving down Gresham Rd in Brixton. This was taken as a pretty sure sign. The party was in full swing.

3.00am: We began closing up the houses, moving out any last things we could save. The big Akros went against the doors, those inside could not change their minds now. No sooner was this completed than the walkie talkie link reported a removal van in Chaucer Road, a crowd ran around. The lorry was stoned and chased up Railton Road.

Almost simultaneously more removal vans were spotted, as well as police vehicles approaching the area. Now it was all coming true, we began pulling down the corrugated iron on the derelict sites and flinging everything we could in the street. A derelict car was pushed out and overturned on the corner of Effra Parade and Railton Rd, blocking that end, materials were carried down to begin a second barricade on the other side. Everyone was working furiously. Meanwhile the last tenants in 105 came out, and we moved the barricade to let their cars & a few more out. Then suddenly the derelict building on the corner burst into flames, and all the hooters and bells started going off.

MASSIVE OVERKILL

Long lines of police vans were arriving at Effra Parade from 3 directions. The first move they made was to occupy the flats of St. Georges Residences, lines of police on the balconies and roofs, cutting off the rear and most communications and refusing exit or entry on all roads to the area. Almost at the same time lines of police in full riot gear – fire-proof overalls, helmet & visor, shield, truncheon, order-following stupor – came marching down Effra Parade. At the same time from the South, down Railton Road, cutting off the 121 bookshop was another ‘riot’ group.

All of us we’re stunned by the sheer array of might against us. There we stood facing each other, about 60 of us in the street, at least 200 of them. Some people were preparing to fire the barricades and fight till the end. Bricks were being thrown at the daleks.

EVICTION

Then as they came marching in, we got everyone together and retreated, out into Railton Road, just before we were cut off. By the Frontline there stood only a line of civilian cops. We went through them, past a deserted frontline and ran down Barnwell Rd, past busloads of back up cops, and back into Effra Parade by a secret route. There the houses were totally surrounded and a terrific crashing came as the helmeted cops were still trying to get in. From the roof bricks and bottles came flying … Bastards – Nazis – Murderers – Vandals – Wreckers – AAAAEEEGHH!!! we let out screams as the first door gave and the roofs were evacuated (3 people escaped by leaping into the school yard, over walls etc). Crash! Crash! Crash! – all the neighbours were out, everyone was yelling, ‘Scabs – Nazis, get out of our street!’ As each door was smashed down a line of riot police could be seen rushing in. Inside all resistance had ended and all 25 inhabitants were sitting in one room, as the incredible violence continued. Then we saw them being led out, a dejected group, through line after line of police – Yes! they were letting them go free. A wild cheer went up in Effra Parade and screaming and jeering continued for the next 2 hours, as lines of riot cops were withdrawn past us, and lines of ordinary cops moved in, then a line of bailiffs, a line of scab workers to clear the barricades, a line of Council and Housing bureaucrats next.

Fights continued along with stone throwing till dawn. In all 10 people were lifted but only 6 held. By 9.00am the street was partly reopened to the traffic with only one line of police vans, and workers erecting a 10 ft high corrugated iron fence front and back. Lambeth Council had won.

AFTERMATH

Only one person was not released on bail. He was accused of assault, hitting a cop in the face with a brick, a case of mistaken identity because he was black. That evening 25 people assembled, screaming for his release outside Kennington nick, they were followed back to Brixton, even ordered off the bus by police when the 20p fare zone was passed… then the police raced off, the Ace (beside the Housing Office) had been set alight. The demolition men were relentlessly harassed. The new fence was taken down over and over again, the back section (30 metres) was removed entirely and thrown into the Old George site, tyres were spiked, windows smashed and mystery fires kept breaking out. By the end of the week the houses were mere shells.

Soon to be yet another Housing Office (which will probably never be built in such hostile territory) and an ecological garden (the Council demolished the already existing and never used one only 2 weeks earlier by “mistake”). It looks like total defeat, but all the lost residents have re-squatted, and to at least some of us Lambeth’s labour Council have been exposed as thugs & friends of the cops.

The story appeared in the Standard (complete with ‘glue-sniffers’ story) & a few lines in the dailies. The local South London Press gave it scant attention up until then their only mention was to refer to ‘the wasteland at Effra Parade’.

On the credit side, we now know who our friends are, who will come on the alarm etc and we put up a good show, with none of us injured.

A NEW SOCIAL ORDER

On the 28th of April, a group of about twenty Effra Paraders and friends went to the ‘Alternative Fayre’ to see if we could talk to Council Leader “Red” Ted Shite about his thoughts on our eviction from Effra Parade.

The place was full of middle class hippies selling your usual assortment of quasi religious bullshit, tarots, zodiacs, carrot cake etc …

When Ted finally entered the auditorium we set right into the bastard, stopping the “discussion” completely. Various wishy-washy liberal types tried to ‘mediate’ but they got nowhere. Eventually they got everyone to stand up and wing some peace song, which we didn’t know the words to. Some sort of attempt to soothe us savage beasts with music. Anyway it didn’t work and the meeting was still held up. Suddenly the Po-Lice arrived and were about to eject us but a vote was held to see if the audience of 400 supported their use.

This vote was unanimous: no Po-Lice to be used. So we carried on hassling Shite. He was getting really wound up, especially when three of us stood up and took the microphone, explaining our cause and taking the chance to insult him.

A couple of speakers got through their speeches, but each time Shite stood up, he just got shouted down again. Eventually Tony Benn (who was also attending) took the stage and said that by our action we had “disassociated ourselves with the “working class”. He didn’t have time to say any more on his microphone went flying. We then pulled the cloths off the speaker’s tables, sending papers, ashtrays, carafes, flying.

A steward got pissed off and tried to start on us but he was sorry he did ‘cos we landed a good few on him, before the filth started pouring in at Ted Shite’s request, over-ruling the democratic vote!

Just fancy that! Would you believe it! Well I never! etc, etc…

We all returned to various seats, and tried to look innocent, but the stewards pointed us out to the pigs. It took over 100 Po-Lice to “evict” us, and the entire building was encircled by them.

Outside the hall we were questioned and searched, but no arrests…

The meeting was called to discuss an “Alternative Britain” and a “New Social Order”… Judge for yourself!!

POSTSCRIPT

After the demolition of the cottages on Effra Parade, the council DID, despite the skeptical predictions of Crowbar, build a community garden (aahhh!) and a prefab housing office, irony of ironies.

In fact 3 squats survived in Effra Parade after the evictions – no 82 (used as an escape route when Ted’s riot police stormed the barricade) wasn’t evicted in March ’84, though it was evicted and resquatted shortly after. Nos 72 and 86 were also squatted…

The pre-fab Housing Officers didn’t have an easy time there: “apparently some of the nice middle class Housing Officers got mugged. Of course they blamed this, and everything else, on the squatters across the road. According to Mrs Adeferani, chief Housing Officer… word came from the VERY TOP that the    squatters must go.Ted couldn’t sleep at nights with them still there. And the reasons… 1) Because we were all Class War Anarchists! 2) Because we had mugged the Housing Officers 3) Because we had burned down the Housing Office (when it was newly built). LIES LIES LIES: We never burned it down. The cops’ forensic Dept. spent 3 days examining the wreckage and didn’t even question us. We never mugged the staff either but its not a bad idea. They know this very well in fact they and their pigfriends know all about us after a years constant surveillance.”

The Housing office symbolically closed only a coupla years later and remained unused for years until the late 1990s, when Lambeth gave the site to a housing association, who eventually built new houses where the row of homes had stood. Even the neighbouring school has now been sold off and developed for luxury flats. ‘Save Effra Parade” graffiti can still be seen on some Brixton walls… the struggle lives even longer in our memories.

121

“The first thing that comes to mind is the police riot shield hanging on the wall… There was something empowering about looking at that shield. I suppose my usual experience of a riot shield would be seeing it charging towards me in the street with a fascist bully-boy attached to the other end, wielding his truncheon penis extension.”

Several of the Effra Parade squatters had been involved in setting up the anarchist 121 Bookshop, a minute’s walk around the corner. The history of 121 runs like a tangled twisty thread through the story of Brixton in the 80s and 90s. Just about every time there was any trouble in the area, (or in Tottenham, Liverpool 8, Handsworth, or even later in the West End) the press, council and police would yell that it was caused by “outside agitators”, usually identified as “white anarchists”. The history of the outside agitator should one day be written; as far back as the 1780 Gordon Riots MPs were informed that “foreign gentlemen on horses” had been directing the mob… There seems to be a fatal inability to recognise people (especially the poor, and in recent times black folk) have the ability to organise themselves, and the motivation to get together – their poverty, anger and the acts of the powers that be in crapping on them.

In Brixton this was just such a joke; the influence of white anarchists on black youth was minimal. There was a lot of contact, of course, black people would use 121, especially during the years of the 121 Club, a late-night basement nightspot, usually run on Friday nights… (Admittedly some of them used it as an informal taxation on whitey, robbing the door on occasion, and the club came to an end for a while in 1988 after a stabbing outside). 121 was threatened with eviction from ’83 to ’85, the Council dithering between attacking it and granting it a licence, in the end they left the case adjourned in 1985 and didn’t return to the fray till 1997.

Brixton Squatters Aid operated from 121, producing the famed ‘Crowbar’ newssheet, at first every couple of weeks in 1982-3, then gradually less often. It started as a cheaply printed agitational sheet on scrap paper, rousing squatters round the borough to action, covering squatting news from round the Borough, London and the world; and attacked the council and the police. BSA/Crowbar encouraged alarm lists, so squatters under threat of eviction or police attack could get word out to others who would rush to their aid – in theory. They lent out tools, produced lists of empties. (Squatters coming in to leaf through the empties book could also check whether a place was owned by the Council in our highly prized List of Lambeth Council Property; forbidden to be revealed to the public, this goldmine was obtained during a squatters’ occupation of a local housing office.) Crowbar didn’t reflect the political views of all of Lambeth’s squatters – it was unashamedly pro-direct action, anarchist in its views and often savaged compromise (especially from co-ops), apathy (especially from squatters) and hypocrisy and bullshit – from politicos right or left. As the years went on it grew wider in its range, supporting Stop the City and the miners, printers and other workers in their struggles, and developing its lively controversial style. The Council hated it. When they were allegedly close to giving 121 a licence, they changed their minds (they said) because of 121’s association with Crowbar and Brixton Squatters Aid. (True to say they may never have been going to grant one!)

WHEN THEY KICK AT YOUR FRONT DOOR…

In August 1984, a few months after the eviction of Effra Parade, police raided 121 and several squats of people involved, looking for guns and explosives:

“TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having 2 small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent 3 hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. ‘Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?’ asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement And up to the roof.”

The cops were “acting on information received”. Could this be the SAME “reliable informant” who told the police which houses to raid in July 81, and that white outsiders led black rioters?)…

…How you gonna come?

There I was, dreaming blissfully of being asleep in a big warm bed with my friend. CRASH…CRASH…THUMP….

Mmmm. people breaking down the door? A herd of elephants charging up the stair? I opened my eyes and closed rthem, quick! – Oh Fuck – policemen standing round the bed! My friend was poking me urgently in the ribs. – We’re being raided – I opened my eyes again…. They were still there. I thought of resisting, let them drag me naked and screaming into the street. Better not. We got up and struggled into clothes as hordes of pigs searched the house. They got my passport. Radioed in. Oh Shit – I’m on their list!

Kiss goodbye and dragged out. Not knowing the bloke upstairs is also nicked for having a skinny grass plant. Not knowing that 3 other squats and 121 Bookshop were also being stormed at he same time, using search warrants for firearms! Brixton Police Station, cold and boredom, blood and shit on the walls and anarchist graffiti. Through the spyhole I see one of my neighbours being brought in. `How many have they got? I start worrying about all possible things I ever did against the law. Not much really.

Interview time. Tell us about 121 Bookshop. I keep complaining I haven’t been charged, they must be scouring the files for a frame-up. Sign here for the paint bombs and truncheon found in your house. – not bloody likely-

2nd interview, Special Branch. What do you know about Class War? -Never heard of it – What about Direct Action? – Not a member, as you probably know – What demos do you go to? Jesus what is this? –

I refuse to answer more questions, realising they’ve got nothing on me. Complaining that I’m being interned for political reasons. I expect them to get heavy but they don’t. Seems like a cock-up?

3rd interview. Shit. We suspect you skipped a warrant under a false name after Stop the City, ‘threatening behaviour’. – Certainly not, No way, would I lie to you?

Here are the papers. Here is your photograph…Oh yes so it is, um, er…-

I’m carted off to the City. Another 20 hours of boredom. Cops come down to ask silly questions about the next Stop the City. – Are the Hells Angels coming? – I see you got the paint bombs ready already – Will the miners come down? … I don’t know nothing.

They’re looking forward to it like it was The Big Match.

I have to stay overnight. Next day I trot out my excuses and get fined £40. Then off for breakfast with my friends.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door leading to the basement. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog, lowered down on a rope as there are no stairs… Shit, no guns down here either… Oh, er, no stairs, how are we going to get out…?

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”
” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences…”

121 was always attracting this sort of friendly attention… Apart from the cops (who had smashed the shop’s windows in 1981 after the big riot, the glass having escaped rioters’ attention) there were at least three attempts to burn it down – once in November 1984:

A guy tried to set fire to the side door, while we were guarding it this morning. John and me saw rubbish piled upon fire piled against it … we got rid of it… While we were doing this a white guy wearing a cardigan said he had seen the… a white guy with fair skinhead hair…he lit… wallpaper from the rubbish fire and then saw the guy watching him and said “What do you want? I’m a police officer!” The guy didn’t believe him, and the arsonist ran down Chaucer Road…

The second and third time were in 1993… A friendly neighbour heard noises on the back, and looked out to see a group of blokes trying to set fire to the building – he chased them off.

DESQUAT THE LOT

Effra Parade In context: Lambeth Council made concerted efforts to reduce in squatting during 1983-84. 200 squats were evicted through the Summer and Autumn of ’83. Council tactics included leaning on Lambeth County Court, to speed up the wait for cases to be heard, and doing basic emergency repairs, when squatters were evicted, so flats could be relet that day. Desquat campaigns on Stockwell Gardens, Larkhall, South Lambeth, Clapham, Kennington Park, Myatts Fields & Moorlands Estates were carried out during 83-84. Well established groups of squatters had previously re-occupied empties, as repairs rarely got done. Now all squats would be evicted at the same time, and people well down the Waiting List were offered tenancies, even if flats weren’t up to scratch. Squatters who kicked up a fuss, petitioned or were Labour Party members sometimes got rehoused. Borough officers got more genned up on legal cases, warrants of restitution etc, and more efficient at going to court, so they won more cases. But council overwork and incompetence still often led to collapse of cases, and places remaining empty, being smashed up, or eventually resquatted.

Post-Postscript: The remaining squats in Effra Parade

In December 1985 bailiffs and cops started harassing the squatters, warning them of an impending eviction. “It began the previous Friday afternoon, when bailiffs and police arrived, posting nasty notices thru doors and kicking them, without response. At this moment 2 squatters arrived home from a CAP picket. Despite furious arguments the bailiffs refused to say when they would evict: ‘Could be in 5 mins we’re gonna smash you and your homes to pieces’ was their final word.”

The whole street including Effra Parade School’s headmaster (?!?) signed a petition in support of the squatters… Another resistance was planned. Friends came from North London again and the houses were barricaded. But about 50 cops smashed their way in using “Ted’s secret weapon… a Lambeth van with a roof beam sticking out the back” and all three houses were evicted and totally trashed, despite a barrage of missiles, water, slates, fireworks , flourbombs and washing up liquid-soaked floors (on which cops slipped when they broke in!)

LAMBETH STANDS FOR LOCAL DEMOCRACY???

What we did do was get a petition up over the week­ end, and 98% of the street signed it (only one person refused), Saying we were Ok and should be let stay. We even got an angry support letter from a local head­master. But Lambeth Council threw all these in the bin without even considering them. We also made some hand drawn posters and picketed the Housing Office when it opened Monday morning. Brixton Advice Centre tried their best to help us but it was hopeless, Ted had spent a whole year preparing this eviction! On the Sunday night 40 punks from Nth London came down, expecting a party and a battle. On Monday night the local squatters rallied round, but again nothing happened. On Tuesday we moved our belongings out of the firing line, people, cats, dog, rabbit and all our gear, plus a workshop and two darkrooms. All had to be moved to the squats of friends. That day the police started to talk to us!‑ which we took as very suspic­ious. They told us the eviction would be at 5.00am next morning, that the whole area would be sealed off in a big operation . They had orders, they said, via Ted Knight, and they didn’t like to do it but they WERE ONLY DOING THEIR JOB. One copper even said that he hoped we would put up a good show! Some people believed them, others did not, but we were all exhausted by this time.

Nevertheless we began boarding up our homes to resist, but there were more problems. Between two of the squats lived a very frail 92 year old woman, Mrs Bol­ton, who has spent her whole life in the Parade. Naturally she supported the squatters on both sides of her and knew we were good people. So we were not prepared to have a pitched battle round this woman’s house. (Ted Knight of course couldn’t give a shit).So we sealed up those two houses and stayed in NO 72.

By now one squatter had fallen ill, and two didn’t want to stay inside. But local people rallied round for one more night. At 4.00am that night there were 25 of us in that house, and more outside. The Temperature was minus 4C and nothing stirred… A good night for Ted Knight’s dirty work.

UNMASKING THE STALINISTS

The first thing we saw was just after 5.00am… a Hire Van circling the area. Though we didn’t know then,this was the Housing Officers who had come (at your expense) in style to see the eviction. Ted himself stayed in bed.Then we heard there was a line of police vans and buses in Brixton. We were on the roof and saw them come round from Railton Rd into the Parade, on foot, a big crowd of thugs, about 50 cops and bailiffs. They were led by Sergeant Grey, the chief Community Policeman!

SCREAMS AND BREAKING GLASS

I wont say I wasnt scared, but immediately our foot­ball horns went off, in a blast of sound, and everyone began yelling. They started on No 86. Without knocking their best thug laid into the front door with a hall of sledgehammer blows. On the door was nailed a big photo of Ted Knight, entitled Ted Stalin Knight, with a Hitler moustache and the caption.”Would you Buy A Used Car from This Man?!’ And on the roof parapet stood two half full bottles with rags hanging out of them (full of water as it turned out). The brave bailiff was going mad, but making no impression. Eventually the sledge hammer got wedged. Then they tried the window, but that was rock solid too. By now everyone was laughing, the whole street was up, and the noise was tremendous. Then the bailiffs brought up Ted’s secret weapon… a Lambeth van with a roof beam sticking out the back, and tried to drive it into my front door backwards! Imagine our howls of delight when they realised the lamppost was in the way!!

They began again with the sledgehammers… then some smart arse noticed the window above the door wasn’t even boarded (Shit I forgot). So they smashed that, climbed in, and took off the ACROS. What a laugh! All this for an empty house! The rabid raving hireling of Socialist Lambeth Council charged slavering into my little house‑‑‑and ended up in a heap in the hall… Someone had spilt washing up liquid on the lino…

5.30am. One down,two to go. No 82 wasn’t so well barricaded, and fell quite soon to the ‘truck and roof beam’ line of attack. Then they were coming to get us. We were throwing fireworks, flourbombs, slates and anything we could get from NO 72. We even threw the posters, petitions and letters of support at them. When we started lighting squibs they thought the petrol bombs were coming out. But this time we were not prepared to give them the Tottenham Treatment, or to risk the lives of our neighbours and supporters. Sergeant Grey the “Hero who smashed the FrontLine’ walked bravely up to the front door… and got a bucket of freezing water on his head. The chief bailiff got the same treatment. Then the sledgehammers began hitting the door, and there was a scramble to evacuate the building. As we were getting peoploe out the back door there was a gigantic CRASH… They had backed the truck through the living room window, where we had all been trying to sleep! Fortunately the would-be murderers climbed in to find not mangled bodies  but a roomful of fresh hate – walls of new anti-Ted graffiti. Everyone was out the back by the time they got inside.

Its not a pleasant thing to stand outside your home at 6.00am, and watch them smash it to pieces. The squatters were screeching at the police lines. Terrified neighbours came crying into the street. I saw them sledgehammer the toilet, I heard the back windows going. Then they were ripping pipes and hacking down the interior walls. In a few minutes they had destroyed the roof..THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT ROOF..in fact two of the three houses were in near perfect condition, due to the squatters renovations. I could have made them into palaces for £1000.

After the total vandalism of that night Lambeth budgeted over £150,000 to renovate them. (The exact figure is the secret property of the Leaders Committee which controls the Front Line. Chairman, of course, Ted Knight). Is this not a scandal? is this not a crime? Who are the real terrorists?

Of course its a crime and a scandal, and Ted is the political terrorist..But you will never read any of this in any establishment paper – You will never see it on the telly or hear it on the radio. Only if you were there, or if you read little papers like this one, will you ever hear of it at all..And in the meantime Ted has delivered to every door full co1our magazines dedicated to praising himself. When persons unknown burnt the Housing Office which they had built on the rubble of our homes it was plastered on the front page of the South London Press~-Alleging directly that we were the arsonists. But – for this eviction there was nothing. Every paper had got leaflets, and the local papers had got press releases and phone calls to ‘sympathetic’ journalist reptiles. BBC, ITN and the radio stations were all contacted, and told there would be resistance on the lines of the first Effra Evictions … In the event only the police and Lambeth’s police monitoring group filmed the evictions for their own ends. NOT ONE WORD of the atrocity was heard on air or printed in any paper. Except, for the anarchist paper Black Flag it has been totally ignored. This is the first and exclusive story (and this is 3 months late). Such is the power of Ted Knight. Such is the slavish Compliance of the upper middle class media. They had planned long, and gone to phenomenal expense. They have smashed our homes, and won the War Of Silence as well … But we are squatters,Ted, and we still have the last laugh!

Two days later all the squatters (including the dog, cats and rabbit) had been happily rehoused.. somewhere among the-thousands of homes left rotting by the Council and rich housing speculators.

Two days later, with newly derelict squats on each side, unknown thieves broke into the house of 92 year old Mrs Bolton, beat. her up and robbed her. Thanks a lot Ted

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Most of this was originally written for and published in various issues of Crowbar, the Brixton squatters magazine; other parts derive from personal recollections of some Effra Parade residents and friends (thanks to Viola Wilkins!), a leaflet about the raid in 1984, and odd other snippets from here and there.
Past Tense as a project did not originate in the 121 Centre/Bookshop, but several of those who have been involved in it worked there, hung out there, were part of the many projects that were based there or used the space. Some of us lived in squats in Effra Parade at later dates still than mentioned above… down the street though.

In 1999, when 121 was threatened with eviction and went into 24-hour occupation, we reprinted most of the Effra Parade story above as a pamphlet, to commemorate the 15th anniversary. Among lots of other adventures like making alliances with other occupied spaces in the area, fighting council cuts, producing a weekly free news-sheet for a while, invading then council leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office in Lambeth Town Hall (we still have the sign saying Leader of the Council from his office door, somewhere), then cheekily trying to negotiate a tenancy for 121 (not very successfully!). Eventually lots of cops with guns broke in while most people were out and exhausted and took the place back. Heyho. The full 121 story has never been told…

Past Tense has written quite a bit about Brixton (and reprinted/posted stuff written by friends and other earlier residents), relating to policing, riots, black radical politics, racism, squatting, gentrification, and much more… Because most of us lived there, through events, took part in struggles and daily life there, and think about it all. More to come – there’s lots to say – though it’s only part of what we are interested in, its an area that has helped shape us and still makes us think.

It isn’t to claim uniqueness for the area (though that is true!) – whatever ends you’re from, the tale needs telling.

Published in pamphlet form so far:

• In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist policing, Resistance, and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

• Black Women Organising: The Brixton Black women’s Group & the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

We Want To Riot, Not to Work: The1981 Brixton Riots.
(Reprint of 1982 classic our mates put out: Currently out of print again, but plans are afoot…)

Through A Riot Shield: The 1985 Brixton Riot
(More incendiary stuff reprinted from Crowbar…)

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online at:

http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past-tense-publications.html
and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

It is our intention eventually to publish history and thoughts on: Brixton’s early history, the growth of working class and migrant communities, the birth of council housing and squatting, Brixton women’s scenes and gay scenes, music and streetlife, further riots, race relations, the council and the left, the poll tax, and more on social change, development and gentrification. Because we are self-funded, have families and need to survive in the morass of wage labour, and also because we have a million projects on the go, we have no idea when any of this will appear. Lots of it is also talked about elsewhere… other people are writing about it and posting up pictures etc.

Today in London’s racist history, 1973: Black Panther Unity bookshop destroyed by arson attack, Brixton .

Working class communities have always been subject to systematically hostile policing. But conditions in Brixton as in many other areas in Britain became much worse in the 1970s. Local communities, black mainly but white as well, were often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. In fact many parents did forcibly try to keep their teenage (and younger) kids indoors at weekends to stop them going out. Partly this was fear of them getting nicked, though many older more law-abiding Caribbean folk did feel they were losing control of their more rebellious and militant kids. The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime”_ – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction.

SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests.

Among the places where black kids could get off the street away from police harassment, were local black youth clubs; but as a result, raids and searches of the clubs gradually were a regular occurrence. Police would storm in: “Twenty to thirty police burst into the premises, they knew every door, toilet etc… They burst in like commandos in Africa. They grabbed people by their hair and necks… they said they were looking for somebody… They took away almost everybody out of the club…”_ Raids caused increasing anger: another incursion “caused chaos in the club. Some members became very restive and excitable; others were aggressive as they were not allowed to leave the building… The end result was one of noise and anger against the police.”_ In at least one case they brought a bloke in who they claimed was a mugging victim, to look for the alleged perps, only it later turned out this guy was another copper, posing as a ‘victim’.

Brixton, with its large west indian population and a strong street culture that police saw as threatening, was a major target for police operations, which often turned into sieges of the area, mass arrests and beatings.

To this day, but even more so in the ’70s and ’80s, in Brixton, any small incident could escalate, often because any call for assistance by an officer (often over the most minor ‘offence’) would be answered with massive force. Cops over-reacted routinely. The open police radio allowed coppers not actively engaged with anything else to race to any incident.

In response, younger black activists, increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA, began to organise resistance to police violence. Visits from US leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (who spoke at a rally in Brixton in 1967), and later the activities of the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, the Campaign Against Race Discrimination and others.

The Universal Coloured People’s Association, Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967, had a branch in Brixton, holding Black Power rallies there. It only lasted a few short years, but from it emerged the UK Black Panthers in 1968. Another group that fed into the British Black Panthers, in its embryonic phase after the Mangrove 9 trial was called the Black Eagles, which met I think in West London. Later the Black Unity and Freedom Party also emerged from the UCPA.)

The UK Black Panther Movement was strongly influenced by its US counterpart. Based at the Black People’s Information Centre, 38 Shakespeare Road, Brixton, at their height they had 300, mainly working class, members in London, They produced a paper which they distributed door to door and in Brixton market, held public meetings, agitated, demonstrated, publicly opposing police violence and supporting people attacked, and framed by the cops. From this their activity spread into housing, education, supporting anti-colonial movements, producing revolutionary literature.

Black power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on.

The Panthers set up education classes for local kids, running Saturday schools and Black Studies groups, and had a library as well as organising anti-racist demos, producing both propaganda and informational material about black struggles around the world. They also ran social and cultural events: Black power activities also had a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups…

But the war by the police on the local black community remained at the heart of their practice.

The celebrated Mangrove case in Notting Hill, (where a march against police harassment had led to nine leading activists – including Darcus Howe – being charged with incitement, but who had defended themselves in court and been acquitted) had been a coalescing force in the development of black militant politics in London. It brought together small groups and individuals and began the process of turning them into a movement. At every stage of the case, both in the legal arena and on the streets, black self-organisation had pushed to a new collective level; both defendants like Darcus Howe and supporters/participants in the campaign were drawn into groups like the Panthers.

The groups opposed everyday police racism and violence. And of course in the nature of such things, Brixton Police responded, by harassing the Panthers at every turn. British Black Panthers warned in October 1970, of a deliberate campaign ‘pick off Black militants and to intimidate, harass and imprison black people prepared to go out on the streets and demonstrate’.

Panthers and other black activists were followed and stopped, in the street, while selling their papers; their fundraisers and the Brixton HQ were repeatedly raided. The usual catalogue of bizarre arrests and colourful charges visited by the peelers on rebels and protesters mounted up.

In March 1970 (in fact 48 years ago tomorrow, the 16th) four members of the Fasimbas, a Lewisham-based radical black organisation, were pounced on the then notorious Transport police led by the notorious Sgt. Ridgewell, at the Oval tube station, and charged, with trying to ‘shop’ (mug) two old people and attempting to steal a policewoman’s handbag, also assault on police (as usual). All actively involved in the Fasimbas’ supplementary school, they were carrying books with them for the school project when they were arrested. Beaten up inside the police station, forced to sign confessions, the ‘Oval 4’ were sentenced, the youngest to Borstal, the three others to two years imprisonment. However they were later all released on appeal.

In August 1971, a Black Panther dance at Oval House, Kennington, turned into to a mini-riot, after cops were refused entry to allegedly follow two ‘suspected young thieves’. More police turned up, carried out a search, but no two youths found. A fight then broke out, several people arrested, and three at least charged. They got suspended sentences.

On the eve of the National Conference on the Rights of Black People in 1971, the Panthers HQ was raided, their files rifled; the group was bogged down in court for months.

Unity Bookshop

In 1973 the Black Panthers squatted 74 Railton Road, to open it as a black bookshop to sell their increasing black literature, and their paper, Freedom News. Farrukh Dhondy, then a leading Panther member, takes up the story [a warning: it’s a shocking tale of a narrow escape from fire.]

“We used to run a newspaper called Freedom News and we had a lot of books for sale which we used to sell outside Brixton from another handcart, and Ridley Market in Dalston. So we had all these sorts of bookshop and we thought we should have a proper bookshop and so we squatted a place called 74 Railton Road on what was then playfully known as the frontline because people used to hang about there all the time and other activities. So we had this Freedom News bookshop on the ground floor, and it was a derelict building, but a friend of mine called Keith, Keith Carling, he was an architect, he’d just finished architecture school, so he knew how to build and plaster and stuff. So, he put in toilets and showers and we made it decent. So we had two flats and we had a basement room in which a fellow who I can only remember as Afrika, because he called himself Afrika with a K, and he moved in there and he played the bongo drums most of the night and disturbed everybody, but the bookshop ground floor, me first floor… Keith first floor, me second floor, and on the 15th of March 1973, the date is printed in my head, I was asleep about four in the morning and suddenly I woke up choking, I didn’t have a bed, I had a mattress on the floor, or a couple of mattresses on the floor, and I woke up choking wondering whether I’d left the fire on or what, what was choking me. I couldn’t see because the smoke was so thick, so I got up and stumbled towards the fire, but of course the fire was off, and then I saw the smoke coming through the shut door of the first floor. I opened that door door and the fire was raging on the staircase and I couldn’t get the door shut because of the draught, it was… it banged then and I went to the window, all this time not breathing now, so a minute/two minutes without breathing, you know what it’s like when you duck under water, and I opened the window and took one deep breath of fresh air or whatever there was. Nobody about and the glass of the front, the glass front of the bookshop was breaking outwards with booming noises, you know, which fire does, I believe, it heats up the glass, and blasts it outward, and I heard all these blasts and then I heard the neighbours shouting, ‘Oh god. Oh god’, you know all this, and I just shouted, you know, ‘Don’t call god, call the fire engine, yes?’ I was only in my underwear, so I didn’t know what to do, whether to grab my clothes, go back into the smoke-filled room, I was just gasping for air. I jumped from the thing, I had to get out because the fire was coming up, so I jumped and I landed in the burning glass, you know, red hot glass and cut my feet and broke my ankles and that, but I struggled up and by that time some neighbours had gone and called the people at Shakespeare Road, which was one of our bases, and Ira [ ]and I think Neil [Kenlock], people came out, they came rushing out to see if I was okay. A neighbour opposite, just a guy I didn’t know even, he got a coat and he put a coat around me and sat me down on the steps and I waited until the fire engines and police and so on came. The fire chief definitely came to me and said, ‘You’ve been set on fire, there’s a petrol bomb.’ Yes a chap threw a molotov cocktail in through the glass. I didn’t hear a crash. So, I hung about, they phones friends for me and a couple of mates came. They said ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I just want to go to school’, right, where I was teaching, even though I had broken ankles. They took me to the thing and they bandaged it up, there was nothing they could do, that was it, so I sat on the steps until school opened, this was kind of 6.30, 7.00, and I sat there until the headmaster and people turned up and said, ‘Why are you in a coat and underwear?’ ‘Because I’ve got nothing else [laughs], this is a borrowed coat, the underwear is mine,’ and so that it was it. The newspapers said that evening, the morning papers didn’t have it, the Evening Standard, or whatever it was then, the Evening News, had five places had been bombed that night, and this bookshop was one of them, some Asian shops and some black project somewhere and all in the same day… the police never did anything. One neighbour said that it was a motorcyclist who chucked the bomb and moved on, so nothing ever happened, no prosecutions took place and the place was a shell, it was burnt out, that was the story…”

Police apathy towards the attack was hardly surprising – the frontline was widely despised by the cops, enemy territory they policed only in numbers and violently. The Panthers were vocal opponents of the cops; and police racism was notorious. In the 1970s, sympathy towards the rightwing nationalist National Front (the NF, many of whose core members were long-time Nazi sympathisers, though they had gathered increasing support among the wider white population), agreement with its views, if not actual membership, was widespread among the police, and this was true of Lambeth. Black people coming up against the police, facing or reporting racist attacks, or crime against them in general, would usually be faced with racist comments and treatment, if the cops bothered to turn up at all.

And bizarrely, even in Brixton, the then growing National Front did attempt to show its ugly face publicly. Several times in the decade, and at least twice in 1978, the police protected the National Front in Brixton. In April at Southborough Park Junior School, 1500 police protected an NF electoral meeting, while 800 anti-fascists demonstrated nearby. Police co-operated with NF stewards, and closed off access to parts of nearby estates and harassed people who were trying to get to their homes, as well as nicking 6 black youths leaving the demo (under sues). In May cops protected Front members selling their racist shite along the Frontline in Rail ton Road – where they might otherwise have had difficulty leaving in one piece. A tiny number of Nazis were escorted by large numbers of police. Coming so soon after the NF march in Lewis ham in 1977 – which had seen a massive police operation protecting a Front march from thousands of anti-fascists, locals and leftists of all stripes, ending in huge battles throughout southeast London – it seemed obvious that the police were hand in glove with the Front. Contrast this with police treatment of black or anti-racist demos – many of which were systematically attacked by the cops in the late ’70s and ’80s.

The arson attack on the Unity Bookshop, presumably by fascists of one stripe or another, was not a unique event. Racist fire-bombings in the 1970s were not even uncommon, often against Black and Asian people in their own homes, but also against black and anti-racist spaces, cultural venues or leftwing centres. Other high-profile targets of arson that was suspected to be fash-inspired at the very least, included the Albany Centre in Deptford, the nearby Moonshot youth Club in New Cross, the Commission for Racial Equality HQ, the SWP’s offices… to name but a few.

The most high profile fire believed to be the result of racist arson was the New Cross Fire in 1981, where 13 black teenagers died (another died of injuries later), which was ignored and played down by police, who did nothing to investigate. This horrific event sparked the Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981, a huge angry march through London… And the climate of racist policing and blatant refusal to do anything about these kind of attacks contributed to the rage and hatred of the cops that gave birth to the 1981 riots…

But rightwing arson attacks didn’t end in the 70s or 80s… in our own time attempts were made to twice burn the 121 anarchist centre, just down Railton Road from the Black Panthers’ shop, in the early 1990s… (Their friendly neighbour chased off the crap arsonists in 1993)… and in 2013, the anarchist Freedom bookshop in Whitechapel was badly damaged by arson, again, probably by Nazis. The police stirred themselves again on that one… And its not only political targets: in recent years, tens of mosques have been targeted for arson, as have eastern European homes both before and since the Brexit referendum. Whether its active fascists, common or garden racists, little englanders – rightwingers love nothing so much as burning out foreigners and people who won’t put up with their swivel-eyed bollocks.

Postscript: The terrace that the Unity Bookshop was part of has, I think since been at least partly demolished. Many shopfronts were run down and empty at that time, and were regularly squatted for various projects. A couple of doors down from the short-lived Unity shop, a year later, no 78-80 Railton Rd, (in front of the also squatted St George’s Residences), included a squatted Claimants Union office, a women’s space, and the famous South London Gay Community Centre, around 1974-6.

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A brief introduction to the UK Black Panthers in Brixton and the racism and police violence they were resisting, can be read in past tense’s pamphlet ‘In the Shadow of the SPG’, which can be bought here

The interview with Farrukh Dhondy (who went from the Panthers, to seminal Black magazine Race Today, to writing and Channel Four), was lifted from the excellent ‘The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement’, interviews with and photos of the UK Panthers, published by Organised Youth.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London festive history: Brixton streets Reclaimed for wicked street party, 1998

TONIGHT WE’RE GONNA PARTY LIKE IT’S NINETEEN NINETY EIGHT…

An account of the Brixton Reclaim the Streets Party, 6th June 1998. Written by one of those that planned and brought the day off successfully…

Brixton has seen many parties, but none quite like the one on Saturday 6th June 1998 when thousands of people brought traffic to a standstill by partying in the high street without the permission of the police or Council.

The occasion was the Reclaim the Streets’ ‘South London Street Party’. RTS had organised similar events of increasing size in the previous few years. A party in Camden High Street (April 1995) had been followed by a bigger one in Upper Street, Islington three months later. The following year RTS shut down a section of the M41 motorway in west London, with sound systems and sofas replacing cars on the tarmac.

The challenge for 1998 was how to keep one step ahead of the police now that the basic tactic was well known. There was also some dissatisfaction amongst RTS activists about simply continuing with parties that erupted suddenly but disappeared just as quickly leaving little behind except memories and a sense of the possibility of a different way of life.

The agreed way forward was to try and organise two simultaneous parties in different parts of London, and to attempt to root the parties more in what was going on in the areas concerned.

The planning meetings for the South London party were held in a squatted social club in Kennington (now a housing office). Sometimes there was no electricity and we talked by candlelight. At other times we met up on the roof of the building in the open air. We broke up into groups, each responsible for a particular aspect of the party. I was in a group focused on organising activities for children. One sub group was responsible for selecting the location, something that was to be kept secret from everybody else until the day of the party to keep the authorities guessing. In this way too the Wednesday night planning meetings could be open to all comers without worrying about the venue becoming widely known.

The publicity called for people to meet at noon outside the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, and several hundred people were there at the appointed time. Most party goers and police only knew that the party was to take place somewhere in South London. The expectation was that there would be some chasing around to get to the location – for the M41 Reclaim the Streets party in 1996, people had assembled at Liverpool Street on the other side of town and been directed by tube towards Shepherds Bush.

This time though a game of double bluff was being played. In the road opposite the Town Hall two old cars crashed into each other in a pre-arranged manouvre to halt the traffic, a flare was let off and a few people immediately stepped into the road. After a moment’s hesitation, the crowd pushed passed the police into the road, with another staged car crash at the other end of the high street blocking traffic in both directions.

Within a short time the party was in full swing. The whole stretch of Brixton Road from the Fridge down to beyond the tube station was full of people instead of cars; Coldharbour Lane was also traffic free down as far as the Atlantic Road junction. Climbers had scaled the lamp posts and hung enormous colourful banners across the street – my favourite read ‘Under the Tarmac Flows the River – Dig Up the Effra’, referring to the lost river now flowing beneath Brixton. Others read ‘Cars my Arse’ and ‘Against Tube Privatisation’ (tube workers were due to strike the following week). There was a huge figure of a woman – the poster and flyer for the event had featured an image from the 50s movie ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman’ showing said woman lifting up cars. Another climber got a big cheer for putting a plastic bag over a CCTV camera. A red, green and black RTS flag flew on top of McDonalds. News came through that in North London a similar party had been successfully established on Tottenham High Road.

People danced to a sound system set up in a van at the junction of Acre Lane. Down by the tube station there were two more sound systems, one playing ragga and the other, a cycle-powered effort, spluttering out techno. A live music PA was set up in the road outside Morley’s store. Over the next few hours it featured an all-women punk covers band (a highlight for me was ‘Teenage Kicks’), Steve Prole, Painful and various others. On the other side of the road there was a big acoustic jam, with drums etc.

A sand pit in the road was the centre of the children’s area. We had loads of gold shiny card which we made into big conical hats. Children were also playing in the fountains outside the library which were overflowing with bubbles. We gave out free pastries donated by staff at Grace and Favour cafe in East Dulwich (workers at the café in Clapham Common gave up the contents of their tips jar for the party).

The flyer had promised to ‘transform our Streets into a place of human interaction, a dance, a playground, a football match, the sharing of food, an exchange of free thoughts’. And that’s pretty much what happened, with up to 5,000 people partying on until about 9 pm.

The police mainly kept themselves at the edge of the party, with only three arrests, one of a fire eater for allegedly breathing flames too near to the police…

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The great strength of the 98 party was that it was organised by people who lived in Brixton, some of us had lived there for years. We transformed the place WE lived in, turned it again into a place of human interaction, not profit and endless traffic. It shared that sense of the possible that we got from the riots, the feeling that we could transform the mundane and weary world around us, by our own actions, into a place of joyous rebellion…

Interestingly, the author mentions the sandpit we created for the kids to play in… One of the planners of the party, who also helped set up the sandpit, pulling the cart the sandbags were loaded on from a squat round the corner, was known to us as Jim Sutton, who had got involved in Reclaim the Streets in 1996, shortly after the seminal M41 party, and was central to many RTS events and actions for 4-5 years – as well as becoming a friend to some of us, or so we thought. In 2011 it became generally known (and is now admitted by the Metropolitan Police) that Jim was actually Jim Boyling, an undercover police operative working for the Special Demonstration Squad, on whose behalf he spied on not only RTS but many other groups and individuals. In fact, I think he is the central figure in the picture at the head of this post, with his back to the photographer, in the blue jacket, urging people into the street. Just one of the many spycops who have been revealed by activists to have infiltrated campaign and political groups over the last 50 years…

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London rebel history: 1000s join anti-gentrification protest, Brixton, 2015

Written by a former longtime Brixton resident, now living in exile. (Its grim up North London!)

It’s a long post, no apologies, these are things I’ve been thinking about a long time… Responses welcome, re-post, but please credit past tense if you do.

Two years ago, today, on April 25th 2015, Brixton, South London, saw what was possibly the largest protest specifically against gentrification in the capital to date. Certainly the largest so far in Brixton. Over 2000 (other numbers are available) people gathered, many drawn from local communities, though reinforced by people from other areas also facing social cleansing.

Over the last couple of decades, Brixton has been changing, sometimes gradually and almost imperceptibly, sometimes juggernautically fast. What was for most of the 20th century largely a cheap area to live, housing mostly working class people, many of them from migrant communities, has been transformed, for a complex mix of reasons, into a much more trendy and up-market suburb, with a nightlife aimed at the moneyed, and a high street filled with glossy chainstores, while the market and railways arch shops that made it cheap and full of cultural variety are being patiently forced out by rising rents and council policies. A neighbourhood 30 years ago dominated by West Indian migrant culture, in its streetlife, food, music, now displays what planners and jargon-merchants euphemistically label a ‘social mix’ – ie more middle class people, mostly white.

An area which always teemed with alternatives to mainstream life – from squatting, through rebel parties, a maelstrom of radical politics – is now being aggressively Stepfordised. And a few minutes walk out from the centre of Brixton, whole council estates are being planned out of existence, to be replaced with private housing aimed at a higher class of people.

Luckily for us, the day of the protest was one of those April days when it feels like Summer (just before the temperature drops for another two months!), encouraging a wide spectrum out to fill Brixton’s Windrush Square (itself a heavily cleaned up echo of the informal social space we knew it as 25 years ago).

There was live music, what seemed like hundreds of handmade placards and banners, cardboard sculptural costumes… The green space and concrete turned into a mini-festival for a few hours, reminiscent of many others I can recall in the same space – riots against racist policing, squatting actions, anti-poll tax demos, cuts protests (Lambeth Town Hall being just over the road), the Reclaim the Streets party of 1998, and the 2013 nearly spontaneous party to celebrate Maggie Thatcher’s death to name but a few. We marched around Brixton a couple of times, though the markets to hoot at some of the trendy bars and their clientele,

And like many of those others, anger broke out; while most of those attending were not involved, a sizable minority took part in some direct action against some clearly relevant targets – part of Lambeth Town Hall, home to the council backing much of the social change with gusto, was invaded, leading to a small tussle with the cops around the doorway; the local branch of Foxton’s estate agents had their large and tempting glass window redeveloped into small pieces; and Brixton police station was besieged – the old bill had to defend their HQ with teargas.

In many ways an inspiring day; gathering people from a variety of situations, lots of whom are facing being moved from their homes, can help to beat feelings of isolation and pessimism that you are struggling on your own against huge and powerful forces which you can’t seem to reverse…

Just some of local campaigns against gentrification/social cleansing currently going on in Lambeth:

Save Brixton Arches: Shops in railways arches facing rent rises or eviction.

Save Cressingham Gardens: Estate threatened with demolition

Guinness Trust buildings: Another estate being ‘cleansed’.

Reclaim Brixton

Housing Activists in Lambeth 

Sorry if we missed you out…

 

Some ponderings on gentrification & anti-gentrification in Brixton

In some ways, looking back on April 25th two years ago, it is also depressing, not least because despite that day, those forces we sere opposing are overwhelmingly pushing forward at the moment.

Way back in 1983, a grumpy correspondent in the Brixton squatters paper Crowbar complained about how Brixton was changing:
“Right this is serious. Over the last year and a half Brixton and the surrounding area has gone through sons very visible changes. The unemployment and poverty is here, you can ace that in the DHSS waiting rooms or by standing in the streets. But new people are saying we’re going to be the new Camden, believing that it has already started with the hordes of young trendies (mainly professional) who are attracted to the area – buying up cheap property. It is also trendy to live here, well we’ve had riots and there’s the Ritzy etc.
The trendification has already started. Look around at the hairstyles. or the hurrying smart art people carrying smart little plastic briefcases. And then there is the left wingers who bring their bookshelves and don’t have net curtains so as to show off their botanical living rooms.
Next thing will be a social worker and a BBC current affairs producer called Terence and Julle moving in next door. Brixton has something no other part of London has with the Ritzy, Fridge, I21 Books, Ace, Frontline and the theatre, its blues clubs – and now the Art Gallery.
Soon we would be living in a swamp of quaint “health” shops, boutiques and galleries selling £200 paintings. The business people also have an eye on this area, because if something is hip it will be money. We have to be careful that all these cultural, sporting. artistic and musical events and venues do not take us over.
We have our own special and varied culture in Brixton which we can develop and do ourselves. We can show videos and films in our own houses, have parties regularly like the blueses with sound systems. Squats can be opened up for a couple of nights/weeks/years for our own gigs (free too) and to show our own art work.
There are ways if we organise and act to do things we want and cheaply which is not dependant on council handouts or just the tedium of always going to a place the same as it was when you went the week before and he week before that. So get scheming and I’ll see you there. Or maybe David Bowie will move back here!”

Yes well, you should see it today, pal. Many of this Anarchostrodamus’ dire warnings have come to pass, and much worse. Mind you Bowie never moved back, though there is that now-famous mural…

In Brixton, Lambeth on a wider scale, and London as a whole, a broad alliance of local councils, property developers, backed by the mayor of London are engaged in a bewildering number of plans to redevelop many areas, break up what remains of the city’s dwindling social housing stock, rebuild local shopping areas as corporate spaces, and encourage the break-up of existing communities. Despite protests by people being persuaded, bullied and literally forced to move.

The social, political and economic forces driving what is lumped together as gentrification are complex, though it may feel simple and black and white when you’re on the receiving end.

From the 1960s on, the kind of thinktanks, committees and foundations that dream up social policy looked at inner city areas mainly occupied by working class, migrant, poor communities and have seen them as a ‘problem’. Not just because poverty, and thus overcrowding, homelessness, crime, drug and alcohol become concentrated in these areas, but because resistance also breeds there – people begin to see their problems not as their own fault, but as symptoms of a system based on inherent wealth inequality, inbuilt hierarchies of race and power. From there it can a short step to start thinking of collective solutions. Some of which challenge fundamental structures of the way we live.

This is obviously a threat to those whose current power, wealth and status is based on these fundamental divisions. But their responses are not always identical. Attempts to simply brutally repress any collective protest only tended to spark fiercer resistance; hence inner-city riots, uprisings, the rise of strong locality based movements of solidarity. More subtle tactics for defusing and deflecting rebellion were needed.

In the USA, one response was a national strategy known now as Spacial De-concentration. Briefly this meant deliberately running down already poor areas, letting crime and violence increase, but using policing repressively, and then moving people out of the area, pouring money in to regenerate the neighbourhood, but with the aim of moving in a ‘better’ class of people. The dispersal of the existing residents would break up local solidarity and frustrate attempts at getting together, and even if part of the existing population remained, the aim was to make connections harder, as newer residents, hopefully more middle class & respectable, from different ethnic groups, would dilute immediate local unities. The dispersed may end up being moved/moving some way off, some will end up homeless; atomisation & alienation is a hoped-for consequence.

Neglect, coercion, dispersal were crucial to this widely-used strategy. But Spacial De-concentration was also mirrored in a liberal state approach too – regeneration, in the name of improving the lives of the existing community. Sometimes it genuinely was, sometimes it was cynically aimed at preventing rebellion, sometimes it was both. And change from below and change from above could mingle, merge, cross-fertilise…

Activist ‘leaders’ could be bought off or neutralised by negotiation, jobs with regeneration programs and police-community relations boards. Desire for collective self-empowerment can be easily subtly diverted into aspirations for individual and personal advancement, and for some the two can become the same thing.

What is important to stress that coercion and removal, and recuperation, diversity/empowerment, can and have gone hand in hand, sometimes one, sometimes both, are used, often (but not always) consciously as a twin strategy, to facilitate defeat for collective community and sowing confusion among movements. It’s hard to identify the forces of oppression, sometimes, amidst the seemingly contradictory forces, impulses and factions…

While in the UK, no specifically deliberate Spacial De-concentration program was launched, national regional and local government has often acted in a way that echoes, and often improves, on it. Most notably, social cleansing in parts of London has been heavily racial – it’s black communities that bear the brunt of it. To return to the specific example of Brixton (though it is far from unique) – the rise of angry rebellious movements eg the British Black Panthers, and parallel community movements, of the 1970s, and most particularly, the 1981 riots, against overtly racist police violence & harassment, necessitated an intense concentration of forces onto the area. Another worry was Brixton’s alternative ways of life, centred on west Indian street culture – hanging out in the streets, en masse, talking, dealing small amounts of hashish, as well as illegal blues parties, but also squatting (both black and white), sometimes occupying whole streets, plus the white alternative scene, based around leftist, anarchist, feminist, lesbian/gay projects, and much more… The area had two distinct cultures (sometimes overlapping, sometimes hostile, often co-operating in the face of the cops), which either questioned or rejected mainstream conformism.

The most obvious immediate manifestations of state response included a cleverer use of policing, and some bug chunks of public money to give bored angry youth somewhere to go etc; but also demolition of the most heavily squatted streets, where black and white squatters built alternative culture; alterations to physical space to make it harder for crowds to gather and move around. This was to be followed over the years with a plethora of programs, many of them in fact coming from national policy, which tried to tackle some of the underlying conditions which had allowed Brixton to become as it was.

Money from such schemes as the Urban Programme, the City Challenge, has been liberally distributed, both to genuinely improve the area (as some saw it) or pacify anger and frustration (as others would say). Grants and funding can be snaffled by those who know how to talk the talk. Layers of representatives from innercity communities developed, some of them former street/community activists… Community leaders, entrepreneurs, a rising caste of commentators and official spokespeople… some people rose to positions of authority, maybe determined to do good, but inevitably being to some extent mediated by co-operation by the state. An old process, and more complicated than ‘selling out’… So community activists involved in struggles in the early 70s are denounced by 1981 rioters as collaborators trying to get them to go home and go through the proper channels. And some rioters from 81 follow the pattern themselves… Former radical feminists come to run the council, and then to become tsars in the ‘diversity’ industry, teaching the police and the army how to look more inclusive…

Famed as a ‘loony left’ council in the early 80s, Labour in Lambeth gradually fell into line with he rest of the Labour party in the 90s, after leftwing labour councillors were either barred from office for refusing to set a legal rate, or purged by national Labour leadershop bent on ejecting the left. Lambeth became more New Labourish… more willing to sabotage social housing, work with developers, and keen to import more people like them into the borough…

But gentrification has not always been about defusing threats of disorder. More brutally, inner-city areas occupied by poor communities were also reservoirs of potential profit, expansion, social capital, too attractive to be ignored by big money interests and the parts of the state apparatus that are willing to facilitate these interests.

Wider dynamics were also at work, however, reflecting social changes that have emerged in recent decades:

1) Massive changes in both social mobility and also actual mobility. The decline of older manufacturing industries paralleled the massive rise in working class access to education, esp university… Both impacted on people’s expectations of what the would do in life, but also how far people had to move to get work. The return of the middle classes (especially young creative elements) to live in areas of the ‘inner city’ the affluent mostly left over the last 50 to 100 years; has played a part in the breaking up of former cohesive ‘working class areas’, but so has white flight, older or less adapting working class leaving inner cities ‘cos of all the furriners’ etc… as has aspiration, education, the broadening of horizons. Not least also for second & third generations of migrant communities…

(2) The dismantling of social housing since the 70s and the culture of council house sales and offfloading of stock to housing associations and other nominally social or just actually private organisations. To a greater or lesser extent huge chinks of the working class have bought into home ownership and the pressures this brings – the need to pay the mortgage, feelings of having a stake in something more than a council flat – play a big part in breaking down whatever unity or feelings of solidarity people had in being in the same boat.

(3) A growing consolidation of monopolies, in that chainstores and chain pubs increasingly take over from the smaller more traditional venues…

(4) However in partial conflict to (4) the influx of middle classes and their money as well as the ability of the canny to tap into the money swilling around as a result of (3) fertilises a varying crop of entrepreneurial projects – clubs, bars, art schemes, and the like – which help to transform the nature of the place. In Brixton as in other places, some of the self-made entrepreneurs are local as well as outcomers; and here as elsewhere many are themselves displaced and their dreams shattered as the processes of change roll on.

(5) This last is linked to a wider cultural change itself, in that our social and socialising habits have changed over the decades; the pub is not the centre of social life that it was, for many… So pubs both go to the wall for lack of business (some being turned into housing as house prices continue to rocket), and others being more desperately revamped repeatedly to try and capture a niche in the market. It’s worth pointing out that for many the old trad pub was no great shakes anyway, and many welcome changes that seem to increase variety…

(6) The increased specialisation in media and culture, concerted attempts to divide us up into niche markets and labels, sub-cultures etc, to make it easier to to sell us things and lifestyles (and subtly encouraged politically to make us easier to control?)

Elements of the influx mentioned in (1) became drivers in squatting & other social movements, got involved in feminist, socialist, anarchist politics etc, and some gravitated to the new left, young left labour party in the early 70s, from which some rose to positions of power…

And squatting and the alternative ‘white’ culture – massive in Brixton in the 70s and 80s – complicates the picture. Squatting was never homogenous – for some a necessity as housing crap or out of their reach, for some a cheap way to drop out for a while, for others a political statement and rejection of property and capitalism… Free space for creating alternative projects – squatted cafes, gig venues, bookshops, art galleries; much of 1970s-90s creativity, publishing, advice and self-help, health, was organized through squats, as much as political movements like feminism, gay liberation, anarchism, socialism… the list goes on.

Squatters, or at least some of us, long opposed gentrification.

As squatters we saw that gentrification was a threat to our own continued existence, and fought it, trying to make links with others we saw as also obvious targets – with limited results, in my own experience.

The stark fact that much opposition to gentrification is itself problematical. Some resistance does fly in the face of some genuine desire for improvements in people’s lives, when some oppose all change and almost yearn for deeper misery… On top of this opposition in some areas arises from people who themselves have moved into the area and helped the process of transformation. Leading to the spectacle of the first wave of gentrifiers attempting to halt the second wave. Or more complicatedly, some of the alternative types, anarchists, squatters and so on, many from middle class backgrounds, who organise against ‘yuppies’. Partly the latter is a genuine move to preserve the area as it is in their own interests… however sometimes it takes little account of other local communities, may with longer and more permanent ties, who may see things differently. This is not to denounce all anti-gentrification activity, having been involved in it ourselves; we do however see the contradictions. In some of the actions and publicity produced in Brixton in 1999 we had both positive and negative reaction, much of what we said chiming with some folk, who were saying the same themselves, and others validly pointing out that many squatters, almost exclusively young, often from abroad or transient, politically unrepresentative of much local opinion, would also probably not be around one way or the other in a few years… From the idealist squatters of the Railton People’s Planning Association in the 1970s, through the left of many eras, including dodgy Maoists who would go on to end up in court for kidnap and abuse, to some of the 90s anarcho-punks, you can see a thread of an ideology of coming into the area to organise and improve people’s lives… Of course this sort of vision is nothing new, from the 19th Century and the Settlement Movement, to 20th Century planners and student lefties, such parachuting to the rescue has been prevalent… This is neither to slag off the ideals or dreams of many of those activists, or claim that all were from the petty-bourgeosie, or to deny that transience and flow-through of populations have been a massive part of London life for hundreds of years.

But these dynamics exist and shouldn’t be ignored, if only because any true transformation of society must come from self-organised activity from below. And as a 1970s Railton Road activist ended up comcluding, if you aspire to change things FOR other people, from above, you may end up changing things only for yourself.

But for all of this, and the many squatting actions against gentrification, squatting as a process was both used as a pawn in the battle to regenerate Brixton, and for some squatters the gentrification was enthusiastically embraced. Like community activism, arty squatting contained seeds of gentrification… ‘Artwashing’ is a relatively new term., but the reality goes back decades. Squatted spaces with an art-creative bent were given easier rides by council policies (that would evict the rest of us much quicker), often proving launch-pads for people rising to run spaces lauded by council and police – some of which were nothing less than fronts for council and police project of defusing and dispersing black anger.

An example: the old Atlantic pub, on the corner of Atlantic Road & Coldharbour Lane. One of the old black pubs, a Brixton institution, part of the mythology the place, famous all over the world, a space controlled by black people, it was just integral to the street culture, yeah you could get drugs there (if they didn’t know you you’d likely get burned!) The cops hated it, of course, in the 20-year battle over control of the streets, the Atlantic to them was like a fortress of the enemy. They managed to close it after many raids (I’ll never forget the sight of 100s of cops swarming out of removal vans in that last raid). It stayed empty, until it was handed to a white entrepreneur who had flirted with the arty end of Brixton’s squat-scene, and re-opened as the Dogstar. The Council and the cops backed the new occupants to the hilt; knowing how much many locals would resent the usurpers of the Atlantic they basically promised them backing whatever happened. Lucky for them, as two weeks after it opened it was swiftly trashed in the December 1995 Brixton riot, rightly targeted for what it was, a wedge for gentrification. Of course it re-opened, and proved an inspiration for changes that would sweep the areas pubs. These days the Dogstar is kind of accepted now in these degenerate times, but that’s its history. (there’s lots more to this story but we don’t have the space here…)

Some of us used to think rioting as much as possible could help keep the gentrifier away. How wrong we were. There were six or seven large scale riots between 1981 and 1995, plus numerous smaller confrontations; this couldn’t derail Brixton’s evolution! Nor could every day violence: street crime, poverty, stabbings and shootings… It was all too ‘edgy’, drawing people excited by the thought of it all, but when they got there, actually wanting it not to scare them.

One wave of gentrification also resists the next… An incomer derided as a yuppie from 20 years ago now complains they are the true Brixtonite and these recent arrivals are the death of the Brixton they love… Tempting as it is to reduce the issue to individuals, shout at hipsters (yes I do), unpicking the social forces at work is like unravelling spaghetti.

For 20 years Brixton has been schizophrenic, an increasingly trendy white. Brixton is not wholly changed. It is however very different. The most obvious changes are in the street culture, the pubs, and the housing. The Frontline street crowds are gone, although as everywhere smaller groups gather, on estates, corners etc. The alternative economy that drove Railton Road still exists… dealers abound as ever in Coldharbour Lane.

What has been destroyed is the sense of autonomous culture – the sound systems, the blues parties, as well as the white rebel scene. These scenes drove much of what made the place tick. The interesting diverse spaces, pubs clubs, even some shops, are fewer and further between. it’s still there, of course you can’t destroy people’s spirit and desire to gather. But the growing space not controlled by capital and its authority, has been rolled back. If we meet it is back on their terms and in commodified spaces.

For the most part these conditions have been rolled back or recuperated. The mass individualisation of our daily culture, the rampant commercial colonisation of public space, a highly ideologically motivated assault on ‘social’ housing and the alternative/voluntary/social sectors have altered the landscape irrevocably.

Gentrification has had its supporters in brixton, because no area has one community. There are any number of communities, divided by race, class, also language, age, gender.

Its also worth remembering that Brixton, to some extent, and wider Lambeth, even more so, always also had another white scene, middle class or aspirational, sometimes racist, which co-existed into the ‘80s even (even giving us bizarre examples like the George Pub, on Railton Road, in the heart of the black frontline, notoriously racist, which led to its being burned down in 1981). There was always this rump that hated black people, at least those who they saw as rejecting getting a job; they hate the squatters, they hated the streetlife, and supported the police. Don’t forget that Borough wide, control of the council could even swing from Trotskyist-dominated Labour to a Tory/SDP coalition in 1982. Social change and utter frustration with Labour corruption or incompetence has produced tory-lib-dem administrations to run the council since then. Coercion and top-down regeneration won support from factions already here… and also from the more ‘respectable’ elements of the black community too at times. Black business could also have an interest in money coming in and producing opportunities… Even though the bigger money often ended in forcing out the small black entrepreneurs, especially bar owners and shopkeepers.

More recently, with the changes to streetlife in central Brixton, the clubs, pubs, and the disappearance of the majority of street properties into the hands of the affluent, Brixton’s estates were left as anomalies, increasingly out of step with the class of the people living around them; with the area being so trendy, greedy eyes were bound to be cast on the land estates sit on. Dismantling estates was always going to be much more difficult, street properties more fragmented and estates just have a more coherent potential unity (although rarely realized). And it has taken a lot longer. This is the battleground now, and it has taken on something of the air of a last stand in some areas (not just in Brixton).

Previous attempts to break up council estates – Housing Action Trusts (defeated in the early 1990s, partly after Brixton’s Loughborough Estate voted not to co-operate), parceling out estates to housing associations, to Tenant management Organisations, then to the ALMO, were all largely motivated by other considerations, among them the increasingly unviable financial burden of running them, the national policy (introduced by the Thatcher government) of preventing money from council sales being used to do up housing stock, attempts to reduce the role of local authorities as providers of services as much as possible… to name but a few.

But destruction of estates and wholesale removal of tenants is now rampant, and its moving working class people out moving the affluent in that’s at the heart of it. To be frank the level of opposition for previous dispersal of council stock, the ambivalence of people about remaining as council tenants, has resulted as much from the terminal state of people’s housing and the despair at the daily struggle over repairs, environment, under the council, as it has from the increased individualism and worship of owning our own home often blamed.

If and how things might be turned around is unclear. There is a current crop of struggles against ‘social cleansing’ in London, based mostly in estates, blocks under threat… This makes sense, as their living conditions make getting together practical and what unites them is obvious. Gentrification is affecting us all though, those of use now living more alienated lives as well. It’s a question of what London is to be. At the moment a rampant capital, aided enthusiastically by virtually all those with any power, is remaking a city for those with money, and telling those without to fuck off. To oppose this with any chance of reversing it, would need massive upheaval, revolt? Uprising? But sustained, linked up area by area, confrontational but also aware of contradictions and our differences… And connected to rebellion against the way we work, and challenges to the relate to each other, ‘indigenous’, incomer, migrant, ‘foreigner’, local… maybe even around class?!? Is it possible?

We don’t know if we are living in a lull before a new upsurge of social struggles, or if capital, with all it’s attendant poverty, grinding work, alienation, boredom violence, hatred and war, will continue to reinvent itself and remain triumphant. Apart from continuing to fight where we can against the conditions we are forced to live under, it is important to both celebrate struggles and ideas of the past and try to learn what lessons we can from them, as well as to recognise when conditions are different.

I tried here to set out a lot of complex thoughts and observations in this post, and some of it is about things I saw myself, some of it about larger social forces. Hopefully it is not too confusing… Its been impossible to cover everything that links into this subject.

One day a longer piece will appear, in print, or somewhere, with more on Brixton, squatting, its politics, alternative culture, the riots, etc… which past tense have been working on since we lived it, but are generally too busy with other things to finish writing…

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s murderous policing history: Wayne Douglas dies in Brixton police station, 1995.

Brixton’s long history of police harassment and violence against its black residents has included several deaths in custody, or police murders if you prefer. Amidst the constant litany of beatings, fit-ups, hospitalisations from the 1960s onwards, at any time you can focus on one individual… however it remains systematic.

On December 5th 1995, Wayne Douglas, 25, died in Brixton police station, after being picked up for suspected burglary.

Douglas, a resident of a homeless hostel, was found unconscious in his cell at Brixton police station at about 3:30 a.m. He was dead on arrival at the hospital. The Metropolitan police claimed he died of a heart attack.

But witnesses described a different story. One eyewitness told the Caribbean Times how Douglas threw down a knife he was carrying when confronted by the cops. “As soon as he did it, they all jumped on him,” said the unnamed bystander. “They dragged him to the park and beat the shit out of him. They murdered him. I could hear the guy screaming…. They were jumping on him, kicking him, hitting him with their batons.”

Another said that “you could hear the sound of their batons on his bones.” Two witnesses gave statements to a local lawyer detailing the police assault.

In November 1996, the inquest into the death of Wayne Douglas was told by eye-witnesses that a police officer knelt on his head while he was handcuffed and held face down on the ground by at least four other officers. The jury found that his death was “accidentally” caused by stress, exhaustion and positional asphyxia. (Doesn’t this last mean that he couldn’t breathe due to the position he was in – ie being sat on? Who put him in that position?)

This was only few months after Brian Douglas (no relation) had died after being stopped searched and beaten up in Clapham by Kennington cops; protests had filled the summer months.

In response to Wayne Douglas’ death a demo was called for the following week at Brixton Copshop… This demo became a riot, smaller than many previous one in Brixton’s history, but no less angry. As well as attacking the police, rioters attacked the increasing symbols of gentrification that had begun to transform the area from the working class, mainly black neighbourhood, into the trendy playground for white poshos that large parts of it has become. So the Dogstar, recently opened by white trendies (backed by he police and the council) to replace the much harassed and raided black pub, the Atlantic, was trashed; among other targets.

In July 1997 Wayne’s family sought to quash the verdict of accidental death given after an inquest in December 1996. The jury found that Wayne had died of `left ventricular failure due to stress and exhaustion and positional asphyxia….following a chase and a series of restraints, in prone position, face down, as used in current police methods’.

On four occasions, Wayne had been held face down with his hands cuffed behind his back by officers. Despite the jury accepting his death was caused by police restraint, they found that the heart failure was an accident.

The lawyers acting for the family argued that the coroner made errors in summing up to the jury when instructing what they needed to find before coming to a verdict of unlawful killing reflecting gross negligence or manslaughter.

In July 1998, Wayne’s family were told that another inquest would not be held. The Court of Appeal upheld the initial ruling of accidental death as it was unlikely that the new inquest would reach any other verdict.

Lord Woolf, while accepting that there may have been ‘just enough sufficient evidence’ for unlawful manslaughter to be a possible verdict, he commented that the first inquest that was carried out in an exemplary manner. Woolf also said ‘…little more could be achieved by subjecting all concerned to the considerable expense and stress of a further inquest.’ He however denied the possibility of gross negligence.

The family said they had been ‘denied justice’. In particular Lisa Douglas Williams, Wayne’s Sister, said her family were particularly upset by Woolf’s comments on the expense of holding another inquest. She said, “A proper verdict on my brother’s death is far more important than money.”

No-one ever faced any charges for Wayne’s death. Because that’s the way it generally goes with the police, they can kill you and get away with it. And even if an outcry does force the powers that be to bring someone to court, the cop inevitably gets off, witness the acquittal of the shooter of Cherry Grice in Brixton in 1985. In 2008 Sean Rigg dies in Brixton police station in very similar circumstances to Wayne Douglass – held down in a prone position by several cops for eight minutes. In September this year the Crown Prosecution Service, after years of inaction, ruled there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any officer over his death. There’s always ‘insufficient evidence’. You’d really think they’d think up some new fucking excuses.

Contact: United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC)

Sean Rigg Campaign

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online